Judaism and Science A Forum on Fact, Fiction and Faith 2016-04-19T21:12:06Z http://www.judaismandscience.com/feed/atom/ Roger Price <![CDATA[The Myth and Function of the Passover Plagues]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=671 2016-04-19T21:12:06Z 2016-04-19T21:12:06Z Passover is a wonderful holiday. It is a time to gather together with family and friends. It provides an opportunity to reconnect with the millennia old line of the Jewish People. On Passover, we reach back through the mists of time to the myths of our national origin. We seek to find lessons from the distant past which might guide us in our present.

The highlight of the festival is the reading of a story from the Haggadah, literally meaning “the story.” The story tells of the enslavement of ancient Israelites in the land of Egypt and their release from bondage following a series of ten calamities, commonly understood as plagues, which devastated Egypt.  Those plagues, in the order of the story in the Book of Exodus are blood, frogs, lice, insects, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the death of the Egyptian firstborn. (See Ex. 7:14-12:30.)

Today that core story, and its centuries of embellishments, is read, sung and discussed throughout the Passover seder (a ritual meal, literally “order”). All along the way we are requested to, challenged to, even required to ask questions, to probe into the meaning of the story. The whole exercise is quite dramatic, sometimes even including costumes and choreography. No wonder Passover is an incredibly popular Jewish holiday, with more Jews participating in a seder than fasting on the traditional holiest of holy days, Yom Kippur.

The Passover story is so powerful that its magic has not been dimmed by the increasing recognition that the premise of the story lacks a solid historical foundation. The Hebrew Bible states that six hundred thousand Israelites males, formerly slaves, along with woman, children and others left Egypt as part of a national exodus. (Ex. 12:37.) According to the traditional timetable, this mass migration occurred near the beginning of the thirteenth century B.C.E. As has been discussed here and elsewhere, however, that idea has been largely rejected. 

First, there is no evidence to date of any mass slavery of ancient Israelites during the relevant time period. Second, consider the nature of the reported biblical caravan. According to the late biblical scholar Nahum Sarna, a group of about 2,000,000 individuals would have come out of Egypt.  (See Sarna, Exploring Exodus (Schoken Books 1986) at 95.) If a group of that size marched twenty abreast, there would have been 100,000 rows of participants, exclusive of animals, carts and other things. If those rows were separated by just ten feet, the entire entourage would have, by application of simple mathematics, extended for around 190 miles. Aside from the problems that result raises with the sea crossing tale, there is no evidence that any movement of a population of that magnitude ever occurred into the Sinai Peninsula and up to the east bank of the Jordan River. Third, there is no evidence of any new settlement patterns established west of the Jordan by a substantial influx of new immigrants in the 13th century BCE.  If the narrative were intended to be history as we moderns understand it, that is, a reasonably accurate statement and chronology of actual events, the story fails.

Now, if there were no mass enslavement of Israelites and no mass exodus of them, then surely there would not have been any need for liberating plagues either. Some still maintain, though, that the there is significant evidence for the biblical plagues outside of the biblical text. One such advocate is Israeli Egyptologist Galit Dayan who cites as proof of the biblical plagues an ancient Egyptian document known formally as the Admonitions of Ipuwer. The Ipuwer papyrus describes a time of considerable social and political chaos in Egypt. Dayan translates the hieroglyphs as follows: “Plague is throughout the land. . . . the river is blood . . . and the hail smote every herd of the field . . . there is a thick darkness throughout the land . . . the Lord smote all of the firstborn in the land of Egypt (including) the first born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne . . . .”

There are, however, a number of serious problems with the claim that the Ipuwer papyrus is evidence of the biblical plagues. One is that the Ipuwer papyrus contains a longer and more complex story than Dr. Dayan implies, and her list of events similar to certain biblical plagues amounts to a cherry picking of like situations, while failing to explain the absence in the Ipuwer papyrus of other biblical plagues like lice, insects and locusts. Moreover, the ordeals Ipuwer describes are not seen as coming from a powerful god acting on behalf of his people, but as the result of the ineptitude of an unnamed king. The social dynamics of Ipuwer’s story are also directly contrary to those in the biblical tale. Ipuwer’s story concerned the immigration of foreigners into Egypt, not the emigration of slaves from it. Perhaps most importantly, while there is a debate among Egyptologists regarding the dating of the events related in the papyrus, with some setting the story in the First Intermediate Period (c. 2200-2100 BCE) and others in the late Middle Kingdom (c. 2100-1700 BCE) (see Sarna, above, at 69), both of those dates are centuries before the 13th century date traditionally assigned to the Exodus.

The Ipuwer papyrus also has an extra-biblical competitor. Israeli born producer, director and writer Simcha Jacobovici argues that a 3500 year old Egyptian monument known as the Tempest or Storm Stela provides archeological evidence for the Exodus. He contends that a new translation of the stela proves that a massive eruption of a volcano on the Greek island of Santorini generated a storm which flooded Egyptian temples, and plunged Egypt into darkness for days. As in the biblical plague story, loud voices were heard and the Egyptians were seized with terror. (See Ex. 9:29, 15:14.) Jacobovici claims that the stela proves that the Pharaoh at the time, Ahmose (r. 1550-1525 BCE), the storm and the contemporaneous expulsion of certain Asiatics known as the Hyksos are the basis of the Exodus story.

Jacobovici’s argument displays the same defects as the claim based on the Ipuwer’s papyrus. While there clearly was a massive volcanic eruption on Santorni, which scientists date to between 1645 and 1600 BCE, and that event may even have had some impact more than 450 miles away in Egypt, it occurred at least half a century before Ahmose’s reign. Timing aside, there is no claim, much less any proof, that the volcanic eruption generated a series of plagues in Egypt as related in the Exodus story. Finally, no convincing explanation is offered to fill a long historical gap and connect the expulsion of some (but not all) Hyskos in the 16th century BCE with the emergence of a recognizable Israel community in the late 13th century BCE and a kingdom in the 10th century BCE.

Not only are the attempts to establish the historicity of the Egyptian plagues wanting for lack of hard proof, there is also no basis for the initial assumption that the Passover story generally and the plagues specifically were even intended to be taken literally, to be historical statements, as we moderns understand that concept. To the contrary, both the text of the Torah we have today and other references in the Hebrew Bible strongly suggest otherwise.

Exclusive of the recitation of ten plagues in the Book of Exodus, plagues in Egypt are discussed two separate times in the Hebrew Bible, both in Psalms. (See Psalm 78:42-51 and Psalm 105:28-36.) In both of the recitations in Psalms, there are only seven plagues, though, and the seven are neither the same in both lists nor is their order the same. What does this mean?

The presence in the Hebrew Bible of these different accounts is actually quite instructive. First, it indicates that when elements of the text were being collected and collated, the editors were familiar with more than one tradition respecting plagues. This is no different, and therefore no more surprising, than the retention in the Torah of alternative traditions concerning such matters as creation, the flood, the Ten Commandments and the spies, to name a few instances where different renditions of traditional stories have been maintained.

The larger story, as found in Exodus, itself appears to be an edited and conflated version of several traditions. Referencing classic biblical source criticism, Yale biblicist Christine Hayes teaches that each of the primary biblical sources known as J, E and P supply some, but not all of the ten plagues. Specifically, she says that J is the source of eight plagues, E provided three and P supplied five, but there are some overlaps. (See Transcript, 1/12.) Significantly, Hayes does not identify D as a source for any of the plagues. In discussing the exodus in Deuteronomy, Moses merely obliquely references “signs” and “wonders,” and fails to mention any specific plagues at all, save perhaps boils and locusts (or crickets). (See Deut. 4:34, 28:27, 38, 42.)

Literary analysis of the plagues lists is also instructive. Each list in Exodus and in Psalms was written as if complete, signaled by either seven or ten components. In the world of biblical symbolism, those numbers indicate wholeness and perfection. (See Sarna, above, at 74.) Further, the more extensive narrative in Exodus is structured carefully, not only as three series of three plagues each, with a stunning climax, but also including within each series repeated patterns of and phrasing for elements of the story.

In short, the theme of plagues seems to have been common during the extended time the Hebrew Bible was being formulated, but the details of the story were quite fluid. There can be little doubt, then, that the story of the plagues in the Torah we have received today is a product of craftsmanship rather than reporting.

But all this begs a critical question: why include a plague story at all in the larger Exodus drama? If the authors merely wanted to convey a spectacle of the majesty and triumph of the Israelite God, they could have invoked images of God splitting of the Nile, a feat more difficult than simply turning it red as even Egyptian magicians could do. (See Ex. 7:22.)They could have had God appear as alternate pillars of cloud and fire, as later claimed during the trek though the wilderness. (See Ex. 13:21.) Or God could have created an oasis, a tiny Eden, or rained down quail and manna instead of hail and locusts (see Ex. 16:13-15), not only to demonstrate creative and fulsome power, but to illustrate the rewards that Egypt could earn through conciliation with the Israelites. That is, the story could have offered divine carrots instead of sticks.

Clearly the purpose of this carefully designed and structured composition was not meant merely to demonstrate either awesome supernatural power generally or the control of nature specifically. It certainly was not meant to induce behavior with compassion and beneficence. Rather, the purpose of invoking plagues seems to have been an exceptionally clever use of a story that was itself dramatic and had some broad acceptability in the popular culture in order to advance a theology at least of monolatry, if not monotheism.

As the Torah text explicitly states, the plagues were selected to defeat and humiliate the gods and symbols of imperial Egypt. They were aimed “ubechol elohe Mitzrayim,” that is, at all the gods of Egypt. (Ex. 12:12.) This view is corroborated later in the Torah. Describing the day after the first Passover, the text claims success for the onslaught: “Yahweh made judgment on their gods.” (Num. 33:4.)

The ancient Egyptians had many deities, and the names and roles changed over time. But it is possible to construct a list of the plausible targets of the biblical authors.

The attack begins with the lifeline of Egypt, the Nile River. (Ex. 7:19.)Turning the river to blood would cripple all agriculture and commerce which depended on the river, which is to say most of the Egyptian economy. For the biblical authors, it also represented a multi-pronged assault: the defeat of Hapi, the guardian the Nile, of Khnum, the god of the inundation of the Nile, and of Osiris, god of the underworld, for whom the Nile served as his bloodstream. The second plague was directed to a god symbolized by a frog, that is, Heqet, the goddess of fertility. The Egyptian god of the earth was Geb. Turning the dust of the earth into lice (or perhaps fleas) showed his impotence.

The war on the Egyptian pantheon continues in the second series of plagues. The definition of the fourth plague, arov, is uncertain. It suggests a swarm or horde of insects, often understood as flies. But the text also says that the swarm would fill not only the Egyptian houses, but the land under them. (Ex. 8:17.) Quite possibly the reference is to the scarab or dung beetle, as one of the most prominent Egyptian insect gods, Khepri, was depicted with the head of a scarab. Striking cattle with disease on cattle surely would have embarrassed any one of several Egyptian gods represented by animal heads, such as Apis, the bull, and Hathor, the goddess of the desert and symbolic mother of Pharaoh. Similarly, the spread of boils illustrated the impotence of Imhotep, the god of medicine and healing.

In the third series, the rain of very heavy hail would demonstrate the weakness of Nut, the sky goddess, and mother of other prominent deities. The swarm of locusts that ate everything apparently could not be stopped by any of the agricultural gods and goddesses like Renenutet, the goddess of the harvest, or her son Neper, the grain god, or by the god of wind and chaos, Seth. The final plague in the series, that of a thick multi-day darkness in all the land of Egypt, was surely an act of war, and a successful one at that, on the supreme sun god known as Ra (or Re) or Horus, and often depicted with a man’s body and the head of a falcon.

The import of the story so far, then, was that the gods of Egypt were incapable of protecting their respective domains, and that Pharaoh could not protect his subjects. With the final, and most devastating plague, that of the death of Egypt’s first born males at midnight, we learn that Pharaoh could not even protect his own household or the system of primogeniture on which Egyptian law was based. Neither Renenutet, the guardian of Pharaoh, nor Selket, the guardian of protection and healing, were of any use.

As Rutgers Jewish historian Gary Rendsburg teaches, modern readers of the Hebrew Bible, unfamiliar with the authors’ society and the cultural clues contained in the text will “miss many of nuances that make the stories so fresh and loaded with meaning.” (At 3/4.)That is true, of course, and important. Still, we are left with critical questions. Why was any account of plagues ultimately included in the Torah?  What function did it serve? What did the final redactors want their immediate audience to learn?

Unfortunately, we cannot say with precision when particular stories were first written or when they were incorporated into the canon. Much work appears to have been done in the 8th through the 6th centuries BCE, with final revisions coming during and after the Babylonian Exile. Arguably, given the inconsistencies between Ezra and Nehemiah about something as seemingly basic as a fall holiday, one could argue, as does University of Michigan scholar Lisbeth Fried, that the canon was not even set by the end of the Persian Period. Obviously, this is quite an extended time.

Moreover, this was a time of considerable turmoil, politically and theologically. A member of the educated class, attuned to cultural cues, might well have recognized the Egyptian motifs referenced in the story of the plagues. If he did, then he would also know that the story was not an eye-witness account of events, but a symbolic war between the then dominant Israelite god, Yahweh, and the gods of Egypt, headed by the Sun-god Ra. At the same time, Egypt’s influence over the Children of Israel was not as strong during this period as it once was. The Assyrians crushed the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 720 BCE, and the Kingdom of Judah having barely survived a subsequent assault existed at the sufferance of the Assyrians. The Assyrians subsequently fell to King Nebuchadnezzer and the Babylonians. Then, following a series of invasions at the beginning of the 6th century BCE, the complete destruction of the Judahite capital, Jerusalem, and the transfer of Judahite royalty and leadership to Babylon, Judah became a vassal state of Babylon. Babylon, in turn, fell to Cyrus about sixty years later. While Cyrus allowed Judahites to return home, their province, now known as Yehud, was now a small province in the Persian Empire and ultimately subject to Persian control. Toward the end of the 4th century BCE, Persia, and with it Yehud, fell to Alexander and the Greeks.

In the midst of this extended geopolitical war, a multi-faceted religious battle continued as well. With the advent of the reform prophets in the 8th century BCE, polytheism came under increased attack from both those who favored either the supremacy of Yahweh over lesser gods and those who recognized Yahweh as the sole god. And those camps contended with each other. The latter monotheistic view seems to have gained ascendance in the 7th century with the rise of the Deuteronomistic school, but fate, in the form of the death of King Josiah of Judah and the ascendancy of King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon, intervened.

The destruction of Jerusalem could have ended this nascent monotheism. After all, if Yahweh were the sole true god, he certainly did not protect his treasured people, or his promised land, or even his house, his temple, from ruin. Ironically, though, far from ending monotheism because of the impotence of the deity, the exile from and return to Judah was understood by Judahite leadership differently. Influenced by the Deuteronomists, they argued that the people failed Yahweh, not the other way around. The solution of the surviving and returning leaders, like Ezra, was a stronger commitment to what they saw as the one true god.

This was the broad context in which the contents of the Torah seem to have been finalized.  And, if so, this context helps us understand how the plague story may have functioned at that time.

Rather than directed to a sophisticated reader in Judah or even in the established community of Judahite emigres in Egypt, who would understand the references to the Egyptian pantheon, the story of the plagues may well have been intended to underscore for post-exhilic Judahites who had returned, or were thinking of returning, that the worship of false gods of any kind, whether Canaanite or Babylonian or Persian or of any other origin, was improper and destructive. That is, beyond the explicit message, lay an implicit lesson: just as the gods of Egypt were no match for the Israelite God, neither are any of the current local gods. In a time that required nation building, the story served, then, to provide a unifying theological feature in the larger text which functioned as a unifying statement of a people’s creation and history and a unifying anthology of its traditions.

Myth based Judaism has generated compelling stories and, at its best, a compassionate culture. The story of the Israelites’ escape from bondage serves as a beacon to all who are oppressed and as a reminder to those of us fortunate enough to be free to remember what slavery might have been like, how it must have felt to have been a stranger in a strange land. During the seder, as the plagues are mentioned, we remove some wine from our cups to diminish the sweetness of the Israelite’s escape, to recognize the suffering of others and to temper our joy. These are worthy lessons.

But myth based Judaism has its limits, and pretending that myths are reality is not only intellectually indefensible, it can be counter-productive, even self-destructive, as well. If we take bible stories as statements of historical truth, when they are not, and if we purposefully avoid trying to understand what the authors intended their audience to learn, we act as nothing less than illiterate literalists.

Reality based Judaism acknowledges that neither theExodus nor the plagues occurred as depicted, that the plagues are a myth within a larger myth, set in a time when humankind often identified each aspect of nature, of life itself, with a separate god. Some may conclude from that acknowledgement that the Jewish freedom narrative lacks not only foundation, but merit. But reality based Judaism also rejects the nihilism of superficial contemporary readers who fail to come to grips with both the original intent and redeeming transcendent value of the story.  Rather, reality based Judaism accepts the challenge of Passover to dig deeply into the tale, to ask a question and then another and yet another. It seeks to wrestle with the text and extract both truth and wisdom from this powerful story.  When we do, when we struggle with the broader myth, and the more troubling one contained in it, we recognize that the authors had matured enough to grasp the fallacy of false gods.

If we want to build a Judaism for tomorrow, we need to look back to the origins of our texts and traditions. We need to try to understand not just what our foundational texts say, but why they say it. We need to become familiar with the context of the content of those works to determine what end the founders sought to achieve. This is the challenge and this is the opportunity of reality based Judaism, as we, too, need to reject false gods and be guided by truth and wisdom.

Roger Price <![CDATA[Jews, Judaism and Genetically Modified Crops]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=662 2016-02-28T16:20:55Z 2016-02-28T16:20:55Z Genetically modified (“GM”) crops are plant products which have been genetically altered for certain traits. Such traits include resistance to viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, insects, herbicides and drought, as well as aspects of product quality like improved yield, nutritional value and longer shelf life.  (See here and here.)

The characterization is somewhat of a misnomer. Modification of biological organisms is not a new process. It has been occurring in nature for billions of years. Indeed, the natural selection of some traits over others is the driving force of biological evolution, the process by which a species over time secures a competitive advantage in its environment. Today, though, the label of GM foods is meant to identify those products that have been modified or engineered by human means.

And yet, the intervention of humans in an otherwise natural process is not new either. Humans have been actively engaged in plant breeding for up to ten thousand years. An Assyrian relief, dated to 870 BCE, illustrates pollination of date palms by man.

Similarly, the Torah tells of Jacob manipulating his flocks of goats and lambs so that he would increase his herd with the fittest among them. (See Gen. 30:31-31:13.)That the author ambiguously attributed Jacob’s success to both magical sticks and God’s miraculous power is irrelevant, for present purposes. What is important is that the story is testament to the reality that at least since the text was written some twenty-five centuries ago, humans have recognized the desirability of and have sought to guide the alteration of existing species in ways thought beneficial. This guided intervention has produced a host of useful and now common food products, but it is, or was, slow, unpredictable, unreliable, costly and inefficient.

Conscious and more cost-effective breeding activity accelerated in the twentieth century of the common era with the use of nuclear technologies, tissue cultures, haploid breeding and, most recently, transgenic technology. The latter technology encompasses the placing genetic material of one species into another resulting in an organism described as transgenic. In this light, GM crops are really genetically engineered (“GE”) crops or biotech crops. The terms will be used interchangeably here.

Genetically engineered crops were introduced on a commercial level in the United States in 1996. Since then, corn, soybean and cotton farmers have adopted GM crops rapidly and robustly. (See USDA Economic Research Report 162 (February, 2014) (15/60).) According to the USDA Economic Research Service, as of 2015, the percentage of acreage in the United States utilizing GM seeds has reached 92% for corn and 94% for cotton and soybeans. Farmers in the United States like GM seeds primarily because they increase the crop yield, and also because their use reduces management time and decreases the cost of pesticides. (See USDA Report 162 at 18, 47/60.)

The United States is far from the only country which has adopted GM seeds. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (“ISAAA”), by 2014 GM crops were being produced in twenty-eight countries, some developed, but many not.  More than thirty other countries import biotech crops.

The rapid and robust rise of GM crops has not come without controversy. Two broad categories of claims have been advanced against GM crops. The first is that they are neither safe nor fit for consumption because they are unnatural and untested and will introduce toxins and allergens and otherwise harm consumers. The second is that the corporate purveyors of GM crop seed are improperly seeking to control the crop market to their financial advantage and the economic detriment of farmers and the general population.

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (“AAAS”), the charges related to food safety are unfounded. In the United States, the largest producer of GM crops, “each new GM crop must be subjected to rigorous analysis and testing in order to receive regulatory approval.” The seed producer has the burden of demonstrating both the integrity of any new crop and that any proposed new protein trait is “neither toxic nor allergenic.” Consequently, the overwhelming consensus in the reputable scientific community is that GM crops which have been subjected to national government analysis, testing and approval are safe. More precisely, as the AAAS Board of Directors has put it: “consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.” The American Medical Association concurs, as does the World Health Organization (see here).

The arguments concerning market control arise from political and economic philosophy, but seem equally dubious. In the United States, the seed market for soybeans and corn is clearly dominated by two companies, Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, which split about 70% of each market. Rather than demonstrating control by either, however, market analysis therefore shows that each company has a very strong competitor and numerous smaller competitors. Neither Monsanto nor DuPont Pioneer appears to have the market power, much less the legal authority, to force any farmer to do anything.

What does all this have to do with Jews and Judaism?

At its crassest level, GM crops provide one more lightening rod for anti-Semites. In one such diatribe, the author not only criticizes Monsanto for its Jewish officers and investors, it accuses the company of conspiring with Jews in the United States Food and Drug Adminstration, and (former) “Senator Jew (sic) Lieberman” to secure the “right to shut down farmers who refuse to purchase Jewsanto’s (sic) GMO seeds” and to obtain a “global monopoly . . . forcing the populace to consume this poison.” As the pop star Taylor Swift teaches, though, the “haters gonna hate, hate, hate . . .”, and we just need to “shake, shake . . . shake it off . . . .”

There are also Jews who oppose GM crops, and who purport to do so based on Jewish beliefs and values. One such opponent is Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a leader of the Jewish Renewal movement, advocate of Eco-Judaism and a prolific writer.  A few years ago, Waskow published a Tu B’Shvat Seder to Heal a Wounded Earth. Part of it is premised on the charge that Monsanto is “imposing” GM crops on increasing numbers of farmers, and that Monsanto “threatens the sustainability of agriculture . . . .” No factual support is offered for either of those or related accusations. The first is false as market statistics demonstrate, and the second would be financially suicidal for Monsanto and therefore an extraordinarily improbable effort on its part. There may be a Jewish rationale for opposing GM crops, but what is offered here is, to be charitable, analytically weak, and more a negative, almost Pavlovian reflex to big business, in this case personified by big agri-business giant, Monsanto.

One can almost hear a contemporary Isaiah asking rhetorically, to those comfortable enough to celebrate: “Is this the seder I desire, one that curses a producer of crop seed? Isn’t the seder I desire one that supports the expansion of agricultural resources, that increases the amount of grain available to the poor, that feeds more so that less are hungry?” (Cf. Isa. 58:3-7.)The hard truth, however uncomfortable it may be for some who operate on a more mystical plane, is that in the real world the GM seeds produced by Monsanto and others, sown in hundreds of millions of acres around the globe from Spain to South Africa, from Paraguay to Pakistan, and from China to the Czech Republic put more nutritious food in more mouths than do all the Tu B’Shvat sederim ever held.

Another opponent of GM crops is Raphael Bratman, who has argued that such foods ought not be considered kosher. He also claims that the mixing of species violates a Jewish prohibition known as kilayim. Readers of this site may be familiar with Bratman. He has argued against vaccinations on the grounds that they are unsafe and not kosher, and we have criticized those arguments as not being well grounded either in science or on principles of kashrut. Bratman’s arguments as to GM crops will fare no better.

Bratman’s discussion begins appropriately enough with reference to a statement by the Orthodox Union (“OU”) concerning whether the introduction of non-kosher genetic material into an otherwise kosher product renders the altered product as non-kosher.  Bratman reports that OU’s position is that genetic engineering does not alter the kosher status of the recipient organism for two reasons. First, the amount of transferred genetic material is microscopic and insignificant. Second, the descendants of the altered item were not themselves recipients of non-kosher genetic material. Having found an answer he does not like, and from an authority he selected, instead of reconsidering his position, Bratman expresses his admitted frustration with “OU’s ignorance of the issue” and rejects OU’s statement as “miss(ing) the point completely.” This is not surprising. He took essentially the same tack when his argument that injectable vaccines were not kosher was universally rejected by leading kashrut authorities around the world.

Oddly, the OU statement to which Bratman refers seems to have been deleted (as of this writing) from the OU website. But Chabad Rabbi Tzvi Freeman concurs. Addressing the issue of genetically modified foods, he says: “Although there are instance of genetic material of non-kosher animals being used in kosher food, to date, no one has succeeded in demonstrating that this renders the food non-kosher.”

Bratman’s second objection, based on the doctrine of kilayim, is more problematic, but he spends little time addressing the problems. At its biblical root, kilayim is based on two verses in the Torah, one in the Holiness Code in Leviticus and the other in Deuteronomy. The first bars the mating of two kinds of animals, the sowing of two kinds of seeds in a field and the wearing of clothing made from two kinds of cloth. (See Lev. 19:19.) The provision in Deuteronomy is similar, but not identical. It prohibits seeding a vineyard with two kinds of seeds, plowing with an ox and ass together, and the wearing of wool and linen together. (See Deut. 22:9-11.) The prohibitions are consistent with a worldview that sees a certain order in the universe, believes that such order should be maintained, and emphasizes separation of like from unlike and the preservation of boundaries as defining features of holiness. At the same time, the intent of the authors expressing these rules is neither stated nor clear.

Not surprisingly, renowned rabbis across centuries have disagreed about the interpretation of these phrases. Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (also known as Ramban, or Nachmanides) (c. 1194-1270) argued that these rules teach that humankind should not disturb the fundamental nature of God’s creation. Centuries later, Rabbi Yehuda Lowe (The Maharal of Prague) (c. 1525-1609) took a different tack. As summarized by Rabbi Freeman, the Maharal contended that “any change that human beings introduce into the world already existed in potential when the world was created. All that humans do is bring that potential into actuality.”

Within the last few years, committees of both the Reform and Conservative rabbinic associations have addressed the issue of genetically engineered foods. The Responsa Committee of the (Reform) Central Conference of American Rabbis (“CCAR”) focused on a narrow question, the permissibility of using a specific modified food known as Golden Rice to save the vision and lives of children. In November, 2015, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly (“RA”) approved a lengthy and detailed study by Rabbi Daniel Nevins regarding the interpretation and application of Jewish law with respect to  host of issues related to genetically modified organisms.

CCAR Responsa no. 5774.5 is, unfortunately, not generally accessible on the internet, but its findings can be summarized here. The Responsa Committee recognized that the primary legal question was whether Golden Rice, being a product of the injection into conventional rice of foreign genetic material designed to provide Vitamin A, was prohibited by kilayim. It concluded that it was not for three reasons: 1) the prohibition only applied to a natural mixing, not to synthetic engineering, 2) having been transformed in a laboratory, the transferred gene segment was not from a different species of plant, but was a “different substance altogether (davar chadash),” and 3) the resulting product was not a new species, but “a member of the same species bearing with new characteristics.”

While finding that “the prohibition of kilayim does not apply to contemporary techniques of genetic modification,” the Committee could not reach a consensus on the effects of GM crops generally or Golden Rice specifically on the ecosystem, another and historic matter of Jewish concern.  (See, e.g., Deut. 20:19-20.) It then suggested that those who could make educated judgments about such matters, whether for or against Golden Rice, would stand “on good Jewish grounds.”

For the record, Vitamin A deficiency adversely affects the health of tens of millions around the globe, especially pregnant women and children. By some accounts, it is responsible for 500,000 cases of juvenile blindness and up to two million deaths annually. Since the CCAR Responsa was issued, President Obama’s White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has announced that Golden Rice has received a Patents for Humanity Award, given for its contribution to improving global health and raising the living standards of underserved populations. Apparently, Pope Francis has also blessed Golden Rice.

The RA study addressed considerably more issues than did the CCAR Committee. Like the latter group, RA spent no meaningful time discussing kashrut. It began with a brief review of evolution and a more detailed one concerning recent developments in genetic engineering. In the course of the review, the Committee made several crucial observations.

Initially, the RA recognized that the traditional notion of an initial creation of fully formed species, and “the stability of these species across time,” has become “untenable in the past two centuries.” (At 3-4/49; see also, 21-24/49.) The RA also noted that current life forms not only share common parents, sometimes one species acquires genes from another. The Committee accepted data showing that “as many as 145 genes (from among 20,000 in the human genome) have been picked up from other species.” (At 8/49.)  Further, while acknowledging that continued study is warranted, the RA held that “(g)enetic engineering is a field of great promise in combating hunger and disease,”  and “we are obligated to feed the hungry, heal the ill and to preserve human health.” (At 5, 12/49.)

The RA then proceeded to discuss two methods of halakhik analysis, one based on legal formalism and the other on values-informed interpretation, as they may relate to the field of transgenics.  Noting with approval the Talmudic principle that “stringent positions in halakhah bear the burden of proof,” the RA recognized that one could limit forbidden activities to those precisely prohibited in Torah. (See 30-31/49.)

By contrast, a values-informed analysis looks to the purposes of the laws. (See 33/49.) Here the RA noted that the sages were concerned about blending species out of “respect for the creation.” (At 35/49.) At the same time, while those sages would clearly forbid the act of forming a new hybrid species, it was not clear to the Committee that the sages would prohibit other than full blending, that is, “the transfer of (limited) sequences of DNA from one organism to another.”  (At 37/49.) In any event, as the Committee observed, the sages “were also clear in permitting the produce of (any) such forbidden efforts.” (At 36/49.)

The RA concluded that the Torah’s ban on kilayim “does not extend formally to the modification of gene sequences via the introduction of foreign DNA in order to convey a specific capability in the new organism.”  Cautioning that the “health implications of genetically modified foods must be examined on an individual basis,” it further recognized that “Jews may benefit from the fruits of hybridized plants . . . .” (At 44/49.)

So, there seems to be as much of a consensus as there might ever be when it comes to an understanding of Jewish law as applied to new technology. GM crops, to date, do not raise any serious kashrut issues, nor does the principle of kilayim necessarily preclude either the production or the consumption of GM crops. The only serious issue is whether such foods are safe and beneficial or not, matters best left to scientists than rabbis.

Do new technologies of genetic engineering raise concerns? Sure. Does the application of any new technology to the production and consumption of food products warrant heightened scrutiny? Of course. But after twenty years of increased commercialization, subject to government protocols and reviews, with hundreds of millions of acres of genetically modified crops being produced and consumed, with all the data that has been accumulated and dissected, with all the studies that have been generated, it would seem that the initial reasonable concerns of the past have been addressed and the originally feared scenarios have not materialized.

This conclusion is buttressed by a report published online in 2013 in the Critical Review of Biotechnology. The report concerned a survey of 1,783 research papers and other documents published in the previous decade regarding various aspects of GM crop safety.  Such a meta-survey is important because it avoids problems inherent in cherry-picked data and puts an anomalous result from any single study in proper perspective. The main findings were quite instructive: 1) no significant hazard was detected in connection with the use of GM crops, 2) not a single credible example of a detrimental effect from the consumption of such crops was identified, 3) there was no evidence that GM crops were uniquely allergenic, much less toxic, 4) genetic segments of DNA from GM crops have not been and cannot be integrated into our cells, 5) there was little to no evidence of damage to the environment from biotech crops, and 6) usage of GM crops was less likely to reduce biodiversity than non-GM crops. (See also, here.)

The haters gonna hate and the science deniers gonna deny. Whether the denial of science comes from one end of the political spectrum or the other is irrelevant. It is, by definition, non-rational, and often irrational. It is also counter-productive to the work our tradition teaches we need to do. With the important caveats that new data might warrant different conclusions, and that vigilance is always warranted when our bodies, our food and our environment are involved, reality based Judaism supports the introduction and usage of tested and approved GM crops that help people. It does so because reality based Judaism seeks to address the world as it is, not as it might have been in some ancient mythical garden, nor as it might be in some medieval mystical construct of ten sefirot, nor even as it is experienced in the comfortable confines of academia or similar social bubble, nor, for that matter, as we might like it to be. It does so, not to the exclusion of organic or non-GM crops, but as a useful means to achieve a desired end.

Given the overwhelming consensus on what Judaism permits, the data should drive us, that is, good data from reputable, independent sources, rigorously applying the scientific method (discussed here). And evidence should trump anecdote and ideology every time, whether the issue is abortion, vaccinations or something else.

The writers of the Torah and the ancient sages can be forgiven for some of their assumptions of the nature of our world. They did not have the benefit of our scientific methods or tools. But today, there is no excuse for ignorance, and, when people are hungry or seek relief from disease, there ought not be much room for those who would close the door to the possibility of better health by bending or ignoring the facts in order to conform to some pre-existing political or economic bias. We can do better. We can heed the lesson from another, more traditional seder. Does not the Passover Haggadah call on us to open the door? Does it not read: “Let all who are hungry, come and eat!”?


Rabbi Allen S. Maller <![CDATA[Math Proves Atheism and Materialistic Determinism are Unprovable Beliefs]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=649 2015-12-20T17:10:43Z 2015-12-20T17:10:43Z A mathematical problem underlying fundamental questions in particle and quantum physics is provably unsolvable, according to an online report on phys.org December 9, 2015. It is the first major problem in physics for which such a fundamental limitation could be proven. The findings are important because they show that even a perfect and complete description of the microscopic properties of a material is not enough to predict its macroscopic behavior.

A small spectral gap the energy needed to transfer an electron from a low­ energy state to an excited state ­ is the central property of semiconductors. In a similar way, the spectral gap plays an important role for many other materials. When this energy becomes very small, i.e., the spectral gap closes, it becomes possible for the material to make a phase transition to a completely different state. An example of this is when a material becomes superconducting.

Mathematically extrapolating from a microscopic description of a material to the bulk solid is considered one of the key tools in the search for materials exhibiting superconductivity at ambient temperatures or other desirable properties. A study, published (12/9/15) in Nature, however, shows crucial limits to this approach. Using sophisticated mathematics, the authors proved that, even with a complete microscopic description of a quantum material, determining whether it has a spectral gap is, in fact, an undecidable question.

Godel and Turing are famous for proving that some mathematical questions are `undecidable’ ­ they are neither true nor false, because they are beyond the reach of mathematics. The new research shows that the spectral gap problem in quantum physics is one of these undecidable problems. This means a mathematical method to determine whether matter described by quantum mechanics has a spectral gap or not cannot exist; thus limiting the extent to which we can exactly predict the behavior of quantum materials, and potentially even of fundamental particle physics.

Particle physics experiments at CERN, and numerical calculations on supercomputers suggest that there is a spectral gap. “We knew about the possibility of problems that are undecidable in principle since the works of Turing and Gödel in the 1930s,” added co-­author Professor Michael Wolf from Technical University of Munich. “So far, however, this only concerned the very abstract corners of theoretical computer science and mathematical logic”.

   “No one had seriously contemplated this as a possibility right in the heart of theoretical physics before. But our results change this picture. From a more philosophical perspective, they also challenge the reductionists’ point of view, as the insurmountable difficulty lies precisely in the derivation of macroscopic properties from a microscopic description.”

Co­-author, Professor David Pérez­García from Universidad Complutense de Madrid and ICMAT, said: “It’s not all bad news, though. Our results show that adding even a single particle to a lump of matter, however large, could in principle dramatically change its properties.” This statement is the physics equivalent of the ‘butterfly effect’ in chaos theory; and religious beliefs in the rationally unprovable existence of human and Divine free will.

At the most fundamental level: Atheism, Theism, Determinism and Free Will are all scientifically unprovable beliefs. You pay your life; and make your choice how to live it.


Rabbi Allen S. Maller is the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His website is: www.rabbimaller.com.  Earlier versions of this article may have appeared elsewhere.

The views expressed by Rabbi Maller are his own and not necessarily those of the Blogmaster. They are published in order to promote this blog’s mission to provide information and foster discussion about matters of faith and science. The Blogmaster thanks Rabbi Maller for his contribution to this forum.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller <![CDATA[Paleoanthropology in Genesis]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=644 2015-12-01T23:09:43Z 2015-12-01T23:09:43Z According to the Bible, God commanded Homo Sapiens to “fill up planet Earth” (Gen. 1:28), and as a species we have most certainly done that. But what motivated prehistoric mankind to spread out throughout the entire world, in the evolutionary rapid time of less than 60-80,000 years?  

Homo Erectus originated somewhere in East Africa almost two million years ago, and then slowly spread out to inhabit South Africa, the southern parts of Europe (Spain and Italy), the Caucasus, India, China, and Indonesia over the next million years. Homo Sapiens reached Indonesia and Australia within 40-50,000 years of its exodus from Africa. New research by a paleoanthropologist at the University of York suggests that moral and emotional reasons, especially betrayals of personal and communal trust, are the best way to understanding the rapid spread of our own species around the world. 

Dr. Penny Spikins says that the speed and character of human dispersals changed significantly about 80-100,000 years ago. Before then, movements of pre-Homo Sapiens species were slow and largely due to environmental events, population increases or ecological changes. Then, relatively quickly, human populations spread with remarkable speed and across major environmental barriers.

Dr. Spikins relates this change to changes in human moral, spiritual, and emotional relationships. In research published in Open Quaternary (PHYS.org November 24, 2015), she says that neither population increases nor ecological changes provide an adequate explanation for patterns of human movement into new regions which began around 80-100,000 years ago.

Spikins suggests that as social and personal commitments to others became more essential to group survival, human groups became more motivated to identify and punish those individuals who cheat. Moral disputes motivated by broken trust and/or a sense of betrayal became more frequent and motivated early humans to put distance between themselves and their rivals.

The religious and emotional bonds which held populations together in crisis, had a darker side in heartfelt reactions to betrayal which we still feel today. Larger social networks made it easier to find distant allies with whom to start new colonies, and more efficient hunting technology meant that anyone with a grudge and a weapon was a danger, but it was human values and emotions which provided a force of repulsion from existing occupied areas, which we do not see in other animals.

The expansion of Homo Erectus out of Africa into Asia around 1.8 million years ago appears to have been caused by the need to find more large scale grasslands. After 80-100,000 years ago, however, dispersal into distant, risky and inhospitable areas became relatively more common compared with movements into already occupied regions. Human populations moved into very cold regions of Northern Europe, crossed significant river deltas such as the Indus and the Ganges, deserts, tundra and jungle environments and even made significant sea crossings to reach Australia.

In other words, God’s commandment to “fill up planet Earth” is followed by Eve and Adam’s decision to internalize (eat) the fruit the morality tree, and gain knowledge of good and evil. This leads to moral or religious conflicts that often provoke substantial mobility—the furious ex ally, mate or whole group, intent on seeking revenge or justice, are a strong motivation to run away, and to take almost any risk to do so.

While religion is a powerful force binding people together, it also can be a strong force that gives courage and hope to small groups of dissenters, who abandon their birth community and go forth to a strange far away land, as was the case with Abraham and Sarah: “The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household, to the land I will show you, and I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will become a blessing.’” (Gen. 12:1-2.)

For more information: “The geography of trust and betrayal: moral disputes and Late Pleistocene dispersal,” Open Quaternary, doi.org/10.5334/oq.ai.


Rabbi Allen S. Maller is the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His website is: www.rabbimaller.com.  Earlier versions of this article may have appeared elsewhere.

The views expressed by Rabbi Maller are his own and not necessarily those of the Blogmaster. They are published in order to promote this blog’s mission to provide information and foster discussion about matters of faith and science. The Blogmaster thanks Rabbi Maller for his contribution to this forum.

Roger Price <![CDATA[In the Beginning and In the End]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=638 2015-10-15T19:06:26Z 2015-10-15T19:06:26Z When the cosmos was about to be created — the fundamental forces of nature being unified in an exceedingly hot, dense point and galaxies, stars, planets, even stable matter itself yet unformed — there was no recognizable space, no measurable time. There was no darkness over the surface of the deep because there was no deep, no surface, no over and no under. No wind hovered over any water, as there was not yet any hydrogen or oxygen, much less any combination of them in the form of water. And there was no wind, either. What there was — all that there was — was chaotic, pulsating Potential.

At some moment, for reasons yet unclear, what was began to change into what is. Gravity separated first from the combined strong nuclear and electroweak forces. Then the strong force emerged and the electroweak force devolved into the electromagnetic force and weak nuclear force. The nascent universe, still small and unbelievably hot and turbulent, was an ever changing soup of energy and sub-atomic particles. It was all good, and about to become better.

Within one second from the mystery of beginning, our mini-universe inflated, and then started to expand. Its temperature dropped from an unfathomably hot state of 100 nonillion degrees Kelvin to only one trillion degrees, but that relative cooling was sufficient for sub-atomic particles to become protons and neutrons and other heavier particles. At the three minute mark, with the temperature now down to a cool billion degrees, particles fused into atomic nuclei, mostly hydrogen nuclei, some helium nuclei and other kinds as well. This, too, was good.

Between 380,000 and 400,000 years after creation, the temperature in the considerably expanded and expanding universe dropped to less than 3000 degrees Kelvin. Electrons now orbited the existing nuclei. Atoms formed. The universe was now transparent to visible light, but in the absence of stars still dark. This was still good.

A second stage in the life of the cosmos now began. In this interstellar stage, light elements, primarily hydrogen and helium gasses, begin to coalesce to form galaxies filled with stars. Over time, long periods of time, some stars died and in the process sent forth heavier elements created in their core. As that process repeated and repeated, the universe became seeded with heavier elements. This was very good.

One of the earliest galaxies to form was one now known as the Milky Way. Billions of years later, this galaxy assumed a spiral shape. On one of the outer arms of this spiral galaxy, light gasses gravitated together and then ignited to become a conventional yellow star called the Sun. Heavier stellar dust surrounding the Sun accreted into various objects, some large enough to be called planets. The third planet in orbit around the Sun is known as Earth. Due largely to its distance from the Sun, the temperature of Earth relatively soon came to allow for liquid water and a protective atmosphere. This was very, very good.

Shortly after conditions permitted, simple life emerged on Earth. Just as we do not know what initiated the explosive growth in the original small, hot and dense universe, we do not know exactly what forces changed inorganic chemical compounds into self-replicating lifeforms. All that we know is that the change was very, very good.

Life evolved over time, all kinds of life, slowly at first and then profoundly. Subsequent natural disasters caused mass extinctions of many lifeforms, but those situations also allowed others to flourish. Following the impact of an asteroid or comet on Earth about 65 million years ago, non-avian dinosaurs died, but small mammals now had an opportunity to multiply in number and evolve in form. And they did, ultimately generating a species of primates who could stand erect and wonder and think and speak and proclaim that all that had come before was very, very, very good.

Jewish tradition literally begins with the Beginning. The Judahites and Israelites and their ancestors who first began to contemplate the Beginning and their beginnings had no inkling either about the reality of the origin of the cosmos, or of the nature and duration of its development. But then, how could they have known what actually happened? Science as we understand it did not exist when the authors of the Torah stories put quill to scroll.

And, equally important, the purpose of those authors was not to observe, describe and test natural phenomena. Rather they were interested in the preservation and development of a particular people in a particular place during a particular period of time. Their collected story was not so much about fact, as it concerned faith and future. They were focused, to use the phrase of the Yiddish writer Isaac Leib Peretz, on “one God, one Law, one people, one land.”

Consequently, they chose to begin their national saga both by demythologizing the then current creation stories extant in the ancient Near East and asserting, though not consistently or in philosophical terms, the idea that there was and ought to be order in the universe, an order established by a single, powerful god. They wrote of a deity who not only operated in history, but who initiated history through a series of acts of creation, differentiation, separation and identification. (See Gen. 1:1-31.) With key elements of the universe both established and ordered, their tale of the development of humanity generally and the destiny of a particular family, nation and people could now unfold.

Still, while the creation story in Genesis is mythic (i.e., a traditional story that explains) and not scientific (i.e., not analytic and predictive), it is a powerful myth. It is one of the two interventions in history, along with the exodus story, that are invoked frequently as evidence of God’s powers and achievement. Biblical prophets like Isaiah (at, e.g., 40:12, 42:5) and psalmists (at, e.g., 8:2-4, 19:2, 102:26 and 121:1-2) maintained and embellished the theme of the creator God. That theme later became incorporated in the siddur, the Jewish prayer book, as part of prayers like the Sabbath Kiddush recited over a cup of wine, the evening prayer Maariv Aravim, the Sabbath morning Psukei D’zimrah (verses of praise) and the traditional closing prayers, Aleinu and Kaddish Yatom (the Mourner’s Kaddish).

Discoveries in science over the last few centuries, and especially in the last few generations, have challenged the literal Genesis text. For some, the biblical story nevertheless remains the accurate report of events which took placed some 5776 years ago, and they have rejected modern science. For others, the story retains vitality and they have strained to reconcile the ancient words with contemporary knowledge. For still others, though, people who embrace modern science without reservation, the biblical myth serves as the basis for what some call creation or process theology or evolution theology or eco-theology. These approaches seek to integrate newly revealed science with certain philosophical or theological perspectives. They incorporate the facts that we are all stardust, all related members of the same evolutionary tree of life. And they assert that we are bound by our connection to the Earth to preserve and protect it. Contemporary Jewish thought demonstrates that the biblical creation story still resonates.

Yet, if for over two and a half millennia Jewish thought has engaged energetically and enthusiastically with the beginning of time, it has been less concerned about confronting the end of time. To understand just how limited Jewish thought is regarding the end of time, it will be helpful to understand what modern science teaches about our future, and that of our planet, our solar system, our galaxy and the universe itself.

Putting aside the possibility of worldwide death by disease and the perhaps greater possibility of global demise due to thermonuclear war (the Doomsday Clock now sitting at only three minutes to midnight), history evidences no less than five mass extinctions of life in the last four hundred and fifty million years. The last of these extinctions occurred about 65,000,000 years ago when, as noted above, an extraterrestrial object hit Earth. The force of the blow, on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, was perhaps a billion times more powerful than the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima in World War II. The impact crater it created, known as the Chicxulub Crater, is about 110 miles in diameter. While our shrew like ancestors survived, and we ultimately evolved, there can be no guarantee that we would survive the next such event. After all, Chicxulub may not even be the biggest impact crater on Earth.

Moreover, even assuming that we avoid disease, war and asteroids, human life on Earth, indeed Earth itself, is still doomed. Our Sun is about halfway through its own lifecycle. By most estimates, it has only another five billion years, give or take, to live. During that time, it will consume all of its hydrogen, collapse, begin to fuse helium, and then expand into an immense red giant star. As the solar death process unfolds, the Sun will expand first to reach Mercury’s orbit, then that of Venus and finally Earth’s. The atmosphere will dissipate, the seas will evaporate and Earth may well spiral into the enlarged Sun and vaporize. Ultimately, the Sun itself will collapse into a white dwarf with a carbon core.

Perhaps humankind will have left Earth by then and established bases on more distant planets or their moons or even in other star systems in the Milky Way. Yet that may not be enough to save our species. Our spiral galaxy is on a collision course with our nearest and much larger galactic neighbor, Andromeda. Andromeda is presently about 2.5 million light years away from us. That equates to over seventeen trillion miles, a goodly distance. But we are approaching each other at about a quarter of a million miles per hour. So, in about four to five billion years the two star systems will collide. According to Harvard astronomy professor and theoretical cosmologist Avi Loeb, the result will be a new spheroidal shaped galaxy (3/12). Of course, by then, as we have seen, our birth planet and our Sun will be dying and taking Earth with it. Will the new worlds on which we have landed survive the twists and turns of intergalactic gravitational forces?

But wait! If an intergalactic collision is much too much to contemplate, there may be less, much less, in our longer term future. In recent years, science has come to understand what the late, great New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, with no earned academic degrees, knew all along (though he may not have been the first to say so). “The future,” Yogi once said, “ain’t what it used to be.”

Edwin Hubble’s discovery in 1929 that galaxies in general were moving apart from each other was astonishing enough. It indicated that our universe, space itself, was expanding. Less than twenty years ago, in 1998, astrophysicists determined that the rate of expansion is not steady as once supposed, but is in fact accelerating due to a repulsive force of gravity called dark energy. Because dark energy is not well understood, there is no consensus as to what the future holds for our home universe, but of many possible scenarios three (each with variations) are most discussed. They are often called the Big Crunch, the Big Rip and the Big Freeze.

In the Big Crunch, at some point trillions of years in the future, perhaps because dark energy is less pervasive than thought or ceases to be as powerful as thought, gravity overcomes the expansion of the universe, a process of universal collapse and consolidation ensues, all that is rushes back ultimately to a hot, dense state similar to that from which the universe emerged.

In the Big Rip, the expansion of space proceeds to the point where first galaxies, then stars and planets and ultimately the atoms of elements themselves cannot hold together. They simply rip apart, leaving a vast expanding universe of drifting subatomic particles. One estimate is that this scenario could unfold over a period running from about 22 billion to 62 billion years from now.

In the Big Freeze, the universe continues to expand, but not sufficiently fast to cause cosmic suicide. As galaxies become more and more separated from each other, and stars within galaxies do as well, our descendants, if any, will lose the ability to see them and the evening sky will become darker and darker. As the universe gets larger, its temperature will approach absolute zero. Existing stars ultimately will die and no more will be born. The universe will suffer from heat death and become an infinitely large area of dark husks and waste.

Of course, much of this is speculative. And there are variations on these themes as well as other scenarios. For instance, some believe that the Big Crunch could lead to a Big Bounce and renewed life for the universe. Others talk about a Big Change or a Big Slurp, where a bubble in our universe or from another universe suddenly appears and annihilates our universe. That said, and with all possible caveats, the Big Freeze scenario appears, for now, to be the most probable of all futures.

Needless to say, the authors of the Torah knew nothing about an expanding universe, or dark energy, or Big Crunches, Rips or Freezes. If they ever conceived of the evolution and ultimate fate of their universe at all, they said nothing. For them, as it is most of the time for most of us, all concerns, like all politics, were local.

Similarly, Biblical prophets and poets, and later Talmudic and medieval sages, were no more informed about modern astrophysics as it applies to the future and ultimate death of the universe than they were to the physics that applied to the origin of the universe or the biochemistry involved in the evolution of life. But they did speak on occasion about acharit hayamim, meaning the end of days or the days to come, an unspecified time in the distant future. Even as they did, though, they created no complete narrative analogous to the creation stories, nothing that described the end of life on our home planet, much less the death of the universe as we know it.

When the days to come were envisioned in the book of Isaiah, they were seen as an idyllic time when the house of the God of Israel would be established on the highest mountain, God’s word would go forth from Jerusalem, and none but the God of Israel would be worshipped. (Is. 2:2, 3, 17.) At that time, the many nations of the world would beat their swords into pruning hooks and forego war (Is. 2:4), and the wolf would dwell with the lamb, just as the leopard would lie down with the kid (Is. 11:6). Similarly, on that day, the dispersed people of Israel would return from Assyria, Egypt and other lands, and Judah and Israel would be reunited. (Is. 11:11-13.) The reunited community would be rewarded with everlasting joy and gladness (Is. 51:11), with the smallest becoming a mighty clan, and the least, a mighty nation (Is. 60:22).

Invoking the metaphors of dried bones and sticks, Ezekiel, too, foresaw the reunification of Judah and Ephraim, never again to be divided. (Ezek. 36:24, 37:1-23.) Given a new heart and new spirit, the people would be cleansed and their land would once again become like the Garden of Eden, with abundant fields, but now populated and fortified. (Ezek. 36:24-27; 36:30-35.) In Zechariah’s words, when the dispersed returned home, the squares of Jerusalem would be filled with old men and women with their staffs in hand, and crowded with young boys and girls playing. (Zech. 8:4-5.)

While the exile of Judahites to Babylon did end, and a Second Temple was constructed, ultimately that period ended in destruction and dispersal as well. Not only had the prophesied time of peace and prosperity neither come nor been sustained, the rabbis in the Talmudic period (c. 50 – c. 500 CE) were faced with communal concerns quite different than those confronting the ancient prophets. They continued to discuss and elaborate on a hypothetical end of days, which they extrapolated into a Messianic Age, one which would be presided over by the anointed one, the Mashiach or Messiah, and come, by some interpretation, no later than 6000 years after creation, a view maintained by some today. By a traditional count, the birthday of the world is dated to Rosh HaShanah in 3761 BCE, meaning that the Messianic Age would arrive no later than Rosh HaShanah in the year 2239 CE. The rabbis were giving themselves and the Messiah plenty of slack.

But as the great medieval scholar Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as the Rambam or Maimonides, observed, whenever the Messianic Age might commence, even while there would be greater peace and more wisdom, there would also still be rich and poor, strong and weak. The essence of the Messianic Age for the Rambam (at 19-20/38) was that Jews would return to the land of Israel and regain their independence. Life would go on. Even as some imagined horrific battles or other conditions that would presage the Messianic Age, there was no narrative about mass destruction during the Messianic Age itself. The whole point was the reconstitution of a united Jewish People in their ancestral homeland, free to build their society in peace.

How could it be otherwise? After all, if it were foreseen that the entirety of what is, including life itself, would someday cease to be, and cease irrespective of the scope of adherence to a particular set of commandments, laws and instructions, how would rabbis of that time have explained the purpose of the original creation? What would such an anticipated end say of the Creator of the Beginning? Or of God’s later promise to Noah, his descendants and all living creatures, symbolized by the rainbow, to never again destroy the world? (See Gen. 9:8-17.)

Of course, the same questions can be asked of rabbis today and they have less of an excuse of ignorance. At the same time, perhaps the Messianic Age is too important a topic to be left to theologians. Perhaps it is for poets to provide the compelling lesson, as Danny Siegel does here:

If you always assume that the man sitting next to you is the Messiah,

Waiting for some simple human kindness,

You will soon come to weigh your words and watch your hands.

And if he so chooses not to reveal himself in your time,

It will not matter.


Roger Price <![CDATA[Exploring Prayer: A Conversation with Alden Solovy]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=625 2015-07-28T15:11:17Z 2015-07-28T15:11:17Z Alden Solovy is a poet and liturgist. A native of Chicago, Illinois, Alden made aliyah to Israel in 2012. His first book, Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing, was published in 2012 by Kavanot Press. He is currently working on a mythical journey, told with prayers and poetry, called Song of the Spiritual Traveler, as well as two new anthologies. This year Alden will also be the Liturgist-In-Residence for the National Havurah Committee’s 2015 Summer Institute. His prayers and additional biographical information are available at www.tobendlight.com

This conversation was conducted electronically and is offered as part of this forum’s mission to explore issues of fact, fiction and faith. We appreciate Alden’s willingness to participate.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

JudSciGuy: How did Alden Solovy, who holds an M.B.A. degree in economics and finance from the University of Chicago, get involved in writing prayers?

Alden: Composing prayers was a natural expression of my yearning to move closer to God. In response to various life tragedies I began a spiritual journey of prayer, meditation, daily journaling and writing gratitude lists. The writing evolved into a practice of composing prayers. The practice was a large part of my healing process from those tragedies, including the loss Ami z”l – my wife of 27 years – from catastrophic brain damage, which I discuss in detail in my first book, Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing.

JSG: So, Milton Friedman played no role in your prayer development?

A: Milton Friedman? No. I also have an M.A. in journalism and a B.A. in English composition. Of course, all of my education, formal and informal, has had an influence on how I see the world.

JSG: Alden, in your experience, why do people pray?

A: Before we can ask why people pray, we need to begin to unpack a different question: “What is prayer?” Let me attempt a definition.

Prayer is an intentioned communication with God. We can do an entire interview right here. What do we mean by intentioned? Communication? God? Using this definition, your question becomes: “Why do people attempt to communicate with God?” People pray as an answer to their yearnings. People pray because of their desire for a connection with holiness, the divine, with their inner voice. We pray when we’re overwhelmed with joy, fear, sorrow or loss. We pray to celebrate. We pray to create a connection with beauty, hope, joy or love. We pray to express our inner selves. Prayer is the expression of an intention to be in relationship with God.

Now let’s change the definition and see what happens. Prayer is the fulfillment of an obligation to God. Suddenly, the whole texture changes. Prayer is a formula of words and acts, prescribed by God’s emissaries, written by God’s appointed, which fulfills a sacred duty. Using this definition, the question becomes: “Why do people want to fulfill their obligations to God?” Prayer is an expression of a desire to do God’s will.

What do these two completely different answers have in common? Faith. Faith that our prayers matter. Faith that our prayers will be heard. Faith that prayer might make a difference in the world. Faith that prayer has the power to heal. Faith that prayer is a divinely-inspired act. In my experience, there are as many reasons to pray as there are people praying. Faith unifies them all.

These definitions focus on verbal prayer. Many people would say that their prayer life centers on actions rather than words: yoga, meditation, journaling. Others would say that they pray by being in nature: gardening, birding, astronomy or hiking, for example. Others would say their philanthropy or volunteer works are acts of prayer. We engage in these formal and not-so-formal acts of prayer in order to draw ourselves closer to God, to listen for God’s voice or to express our yearnings with our deeds.

JSG: Your answer raises the issue of the definition of God. How do you define the object of your communication, the entity with which or with whom you seek a relationship?

A:   No words can adequately describe God. For me, ‘source’ is a powerful way to understand God, both in the sense of original source, the ‘creator,’ as well as the ongoing source, the ‘sustainer.’ Add to that the ideas – reflected in our classic liturgy – of infinite, one, without bodily form or substance, holy, whose existence is beyond time. Each addition, of course, adds a potential new set of conversations.

We commonly employ contrasting images of God in our attempt to describe God. For example: One metaphor is God somewhere beyond the gates of heaven. God is distant and remote. Yet, we also conceive of God as right here, right now, the ‘still small voice,’ so close, so near and present, that God’s voice is actually inside of each of us. Both describe ways we experience God.

Defining ‘God’ is often an attempt to apprehend an understanding with intellectual faculties. Seeking to define God is not nearly as powerful as seeking to experience God. The desire to experience God is an attempt to apprehend God with spiritual faculties. That’s a matter of trust in the validity and truth of spiritual experience, no matter how remote God may seem. It’s a matter of faith that the still small voice of God, present in each of us, can be heard.

JSG: Do you pray often?

A: As soon as I wake up I say an off-the-cuff prayer, sometimes a few, as well as the traditional ‘modeh ani.’ I also pray formally, with a prayer book, once each day. I put on tefillin and say the Sh’ma. Several times each day I pause, sometimes just to thank God for a beautiful moment, sometimes to say the classic Jewish ‘asher yatzar’ prayer, sometimes to pray for healing for specific people I know who are ill. I continue to regularly journal, write a gratitude list and meditate.

JSG: Do you pray using the prayers that you have written?

A: I use handful of favorites in my personal prayers each day. I also use my prayers focused on Jewish holy days and seasons, such as daily prayers during the counting of the Omer and the Passover prayers found in my second book Hagaddah Companion: Meditations and Readings. When I have a scholar-in-residency, several of my Shabbat prayers are typically incorporated into the Friday night service.

JSG: What do you find lacking in traditional prayer language?

A: Some of the language and themes found in our traditional Siddur are challenging: prayers with triumphal themes, prayers that exclude women, prayers that portray God as angry or jealous, prayers about reinstating the sacrificial cult, for example. The body of our historic liturgy also lacks responses to many core problems of our day. That is changing as more and more individuals – rabbis, educators, poets – create and share new prayers and new rituals.

It’s instructive to ask if the struggle is with the Hebrew, the translation or the interpretation. The translations in the Koren and the Artscroll siddurs are much different. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s z”l daily Siddur maintains the traditional Hebrew but has a radically different translation. Mishkan T’filah, the new Reform Siddur, varies in both Hebrew and English from its predecessor, The Gates of Prayer.

We are blessed, in this day and age, to have a wide variety of choices. In liberal Jewish movements, we eliminate or replace language that is troublesome. Even in some modern Orthodox circles, the meaning and intention of some of that old language is taking on new interpretations.

Engaging with the traditional prayers – perhaps in study, perhaps in worship – has its rewards. Our yearnings as human beings and the ethos of the Jewish people are captured in the prayer book. It hasn’t stayed static over the centuries. It’s shifted, changed, grown. As a book – more precisely, as a set of books that has evolved over time and across locations – the Siddur captures the heart and history of Jewish people. It’s remarkably bold, innovative, provocative, sensitive and illuminating. Its evolution, which continues in all strands of Judaism, is fascinating.

JSG: You made aliyah three years ago. Was your move intended to support or enhance your prayer writing, and, if so, how?

A: My aliyah has, indeed, supported my writing, but that was not my intention. My intention was simply to build a new life. The gifts I’ve received have gone beyond what I could have imagined before coming here.

JSG: Your blog is titled “To Bend Light.” What message do you want to convey with that title?

A: The name of the blog came out of an email conversation with a friend. I was trying to make a distinction between prayer, blessing and the mystic’s attempt to commune with God. We had no common language, so I created a set of analogies to hint at the distinction I was trying to make. I wrote: “Light is a universal metaphor for Divine energy, a universal symbol for holiness, truth, radiance, love. To pray is to summon Divine light. To bless is to attempt to bend that light toward holy purpose, including consolation, healing, joy and peace. Communion is the attempt to enter that light.” With the blog title, I’m attempting to communicate that my site is a place of spiritual intent.

JSG: When you speak of summoning “Divine light,” are you speaking metaphorically or do you believe in some transcendent or imminent cosmic energy?

A: It’s a metaphor for a belief that gifts continue to flow from God into the world. It’s a metaphor for a belief that creation was more than a one-time act. God continues to create the universe – some might say God actively maintains the created world – which is classic Jewish theology reaffirmed in our prayers. It’s a metaphor for a belief that our prayers matter, that they make a difference.

JSG: Is the light of which you speak a natural phenomenon, or more a panentheistic force like Arthur Green discusses or perhaps more similar to Mordecai Kaplan’s trans-natural power? Or is it akin to an emergent consciousness recently discussed by David Nelson in The Emergence of God?

A: Light, as I’m using it here, is a metaphor for the sustained and ongoing flow of God’s creative energy into the world. It’s a metaphor for the belief that God continues to engage with the created universe. Here is one more definition of prayer, this one from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ introduction to the Koren siddur: “G-d’s blessings flow continuously, but unless we make ourselves into a vessel for them, they will flow elsewhere. Prayer is the act of turning ourselves into a vehicle for the Divine.”

JSG: You also speak about blessing as a process of bending light. How does this bending occur? Is the energy being bent, like starlight is bent by gravity, or is the person expressing the blessing somehow transformed?

A: This is part of the same metaphor, describing a belief that we can direct our prayers to holy purpose. Light represents the flow of God’s continued blessings into the world. ‘Bending light’ is a way to describe what happens when we bless one another.

JSG: Does this Devine light have any independent will or does it exist to be summoned and bent?

A: In Man’s Quest for G-d, Heschel put it this way: “Great is the power of prayer. To worship is to expand the presence of G-d in the world. G-d is transcendent, but our worship makes Him immanent.” What Heschel says matches my own indescribable spiritual experience of the world. I have been in the presence of holiness; I have been in the presence of the divine. If I catch a glimpse, that is a gift.

JSG: Some argue that fundamentally prayer involves one of three attitudes: gratitude, wonder and petition. Do you agree?

A: Gratitude and wonder are attitudes. The associated actions are thanks and praise. Petition is an action. The associated attitude is hope, or perhaps desperation.

What you’re describing is a typology for categorizing prayers. There are many. Anne Lamott coined this: Help, Thanks, Wow. Her typology is consistent with the structure of the Jewish Amidah prayers, which are divided into shevach (praises), bakashot (requests) and hoda’ot (thanks). Here’s one Christian construct: Adoration, Confession, Supplication and Thanksgiving. This is one Catholic construct: Adoration, Expiation, Love, Petition and Thanksgiving. When I teach, I use this typology: Wow, Gimmie, Thanks and Oops. When we think about the Sh’ma, we need to add another category: ‘Creed.’

The core attitudes behind all types of prayer are love and faith.

JSG: Let’s look at some of your offerings. Many of your prayers are addressed to “Ancient One.” Are you speaking to the skygod of our ancestors?

A: When I use ‘Ancient One’ in a prayer I want to evoke the feeling of God as a deep well of understanding, the One whose wisdom spans beyond my ability to comprehend, the One who existed before the creation of time.

JSG: Then to whom or what are you speaking and what do you want to achieve by the use of that term?

A: Every name, title or description of God is an attempt to understand some facet of the incomprehensible. In my writing I use all sorts of names, titles and descriptions including: God, Adonai, Source, Rock, Creator, Maker, Shield, Consolation, Guide, Foundation, Holy One, Guardian, Ein Sof and Shechinah, for example. I never – never ever – use the terms like Lord, King or Ruler, for example.

JSG: Why don’t you just use the term “God”?

A: My prayer workshops typically include a discussion of our names for God. There are people who are uncomfortable addressing God with titles like Sovereign or Ancient One. Yet, put those titles in the context of a Yom Kippur prayer and the comfort level increases. More people are willing to use these titles in the context of atonement. There are those people who are uncomfortable with feminine or mystical names for God, like Shechinah. Yet, if you put those names in context of a healing prayer the comfort level increases. We seem to intuitively move to titles like Source, Well and Shechinah when praying from our vulnerability. For each individual prayer, I employ the names, titles and descriptions for God that seem most appropriate to the content and the mood of that prayer.

JSG: Do you think that using Ancient One is more or less appealing to the Nones who are a rapidly growing part of the Jewish population?

A: The Ancient One is also the Source is also the Shechinah is also the Shield, Consolation, Creator and Ein Sof and every other name, title or description of God. I’m not sure any of them appeal to people who are not religious.

Your attention to ‘Ancient One’ got me curious about my own work. I went back and checked my use of names for God in my work. Great exercise. Of my 550 prayers, 55 include ‘Ancient One’ as a description of God, but it’s almost always accompanied by one or more other names for God within the same prayer. Five of my prayers use ‘Ancient One’ as the only name or description God.

JSG: Do you believe that the Ancient One hears your prayers, and, if so, in what fashion?

A: God hears our prayers. This is a classic Jewish belief. Several of our prayers end, “Blessed are You Adonai, who hears prayer.”

JSG: What kind of response, if any, do you expect from Ancient One?

A: I don’t expect a response. I believe – I have faith – that prayers are heard, that prayers make a difference. I don’t need to experience a response, direct or indirect. Faith does not require an answer.

JSG: Well, if you do not expect Ancient One to respond, why not drop the reference to an addressee and just assert the value asserted in the prayer. For instance, why not just say something like “We fervently hope for peace and look forward to a time when all of humanity can live together with mutual respect” ?

A: We can recite poems for peace or sing songs about love and equality. I’ve done both. Songs are not prayers unless they somehow engage God, either in the language of the song or the intention of the one singing. Some of my own prayers do not mention God. No name. No title. No description. When I use them, I hold the intention of prayer. I hold the intention of communication with God. Others might read those prayers without that intention. Is it the same act? No.

JSG: Or, “Our ancestors appealed to Ribono shel Olam, the Master of the Universe, but we know that it is we who must strive to do godly work on earth.”

A: Doing God’s work on earth is beautiful. Repairing the world is done in partnership with God. We often pray for the willingness, courage and stamina to do that work. “God give me strength” is one of the most universal prayers.

JSG: In the introduction to a recent piece, titled Let God, you say that you want to let God into your life and move in the direction of holiness. What do you mean by that?

A: Holiness cannot be described or defined. Holiness must be experienced. Holiness is sighted. It can be sighted in the mundane, in the dirt, in acts of charity, in acts of kindness, in wrinkled hands and battered lives. It’s there, waiting to be seen, heard, touched. My hope and prayer is that I’m open and available to experience holiness in the world.

JSG: Do you think that holiness is achievable without reference to God?

A: Holiness itself is an emanation of God. Sometimes it’s a reflection of the godliness in us; sometimes it’s a reflection of Godself. Yes, holiness can be encountered without calling on God. Holiness cannot exist without God.

JSG: Similarly, in Praise for Healing, you speak of the energy of life flowing again into limbs, chest and heart. And you express thanks to “Source and Shelter” and “Healer and Guide” for having blessed you with days of joy and leading you back to “a life of wholeness and peace.” In what way do you envision the “Source” and “Healer” acting?

A: Your question comes down to this: How does prayer work? Let me tell you a story. My wife Ami z”l died of catastrophic brain damage as the result of a fall. At some point in the hospital, as we were waiting in her ICU room for her ultimate brain death to occur, one of my daughters said out loud that it bothered her to see all the blood in Ami’s flowing blond hair. Someone in hallway nearby must have overheard. A few minutes later, a nurse came into the room and washed Ami’s hair. A stranger came in to wash the hair of what was, essentially a dead woman, to ease our suffering. Were my daughter’s words a prayer? Was the nurse an answer? Was it just a coincidence? In that moment, each of us felt the presence of holiness. Something sacred transpired. We cannot describe it or duplicate it or even know on an empirical level if it happened. And it happened. Part of the power in prayer – the juice, the energy, the mojo – is in the mystery. Rabbi Sacks said that “prayer changes the world because it changes us.” I’ve had that experience, as well, but trying to understand how it works is an attempt to explain faith with reason. Reb Zalman put it this way: “We are asking the mind to understand that there are some things the mind cannot do. We cannot think our way to G-d. We cannot reach G-d by a safe step-by-step process.”

JSG: Could you have expressed the same gratitude, no doubt less poetically, but attributed the successful healing process to attending physicians, medical technology and pharmaceutical advances?

A: I’ve written prayers of gratitude for physicians, nurses and care givers, for example, prayers “For Medical Science” and “For Organ Donation.” These prayers praise the skills and the advancements achieved by medical professionals, thanking God for those gifts, asking that clinical skill be expanded and that advancements in medical science continue.

JSG: Over the last few years, how, if at all, has your understanding of the object of your words changed?

A: The object of my writing has not changed. My understanding and appreciation of the impact on myself and others has deepened. A few times each week I’ll hear from someone struggling with a difficult moment, or someone else who’s just experienced some joy or wonder, saying that a particular prayer I wrote provided the very words needed when they could not find their own.

I write prayers to fill voids in our liturgy. I write to give voice to our desires, hopes and yearnings. I write to strengthen my connection to God, to make myself a vessel for God’s blessings. I write to give others words they might not have. I write to inspire others to speak or write their own prayers, in their own words, with their own voices. I write as an act of personal healing. I write as an act of prayer.

JSG: How, if at all, has your writing style changed?

A: I use a variety of stylistic devices – call them poetic voices – to create mood in a prayer: the voice classic liturgist, the admonishing prophet, the seeking male, the spiritual traveler, the voice of prayer itself. Over time, these writing styles have emerged, deepened and changed. I’ve become more willing to blend those voices and to experiment with language.

When I moved to Israel I began a deeper study of Torah and classic liturgy, which has influenced the focus of some of my prayers, including incorporating Hebrew and references to text in some of my work. I continue to write prayers in response to natural disasters and man-made calamities.

I’ve also become more attune to writing both Jewish prayers – prayers that relate to Jewish theology, liturgy or holy days – and to writing prayers that can be used by people of all faiths, at times providing alternative language in the prayer.

JSG: Thanks, Alden. Good luck on your journey.

A: Thanks for your interest.

Roger Price <![CDATA[Faith in Religion, Confidence in Science]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=619 2015-06-22T16:05:37Z 2015-06-22T16:05:37Z In response to a theoretical physicist’s article regarding developments in cosmology and the then current debate about whether the universe had a finite age or was in a steady state without beginning or end, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, initiated a brief but revealing correspondence. The correspondence was prompted by Schneerson’s deep concern over what he considered to be widespread misconceptions about science and his perceived urgent need to correct those misunderstandings. In this correspondence, Schneerson demonstrated an expected devotion to the text of the Torah and traditions relating to it, but also a certain and perhaps unexpected awareness of technical issues, for instance whether light was an electro-magnetic wave or “corpuscular” or both. More importantly, in the course of the correspondence, he articulated his approach to faith and science and what some asserted was a conflict between them.

Schneerson thought the purported conflict was the result of a misconception of the nature of science. The “sciences,” he said, “are at bottom nothing more than assumptions, work hypotheses and theories which are only ‘probable’ . . . .”  By contrast, he viewed “religious truths” as “definitive and categorical.” Consequently, science could not challenge religion because “science can never speak in terms of absolute truth.” 

Speaking in 1961 (CE), Schneerson stated that “our world came into being 5721 years ago . . . .” (In mid-2015, that would correspond to the age of Earth being 5775, according to the traditional Jewish calendar count.) He recognized that it would be “impossible to cram within a period of 5722 years a process of evolution . . . which . . . would require  . . . billions of years.” (Emphasis in original.) But he disagreed with evolutionary cosmological theory and considered the traditional annual dating to be “historic” based on the language of the Torah which was reaffirmed by Halakhah, that is, traditional Jewish legal principles expressed in accepted writings like the Talmud. For Schneerson, the test of “the matter is Halachah. Where Halachah is concerned there can be no alternatives, for the rule of Halachah is the rule of reality.”

Such language tends to light the already short fuse of a group known as the New Atheists.  One of the more prominent members of this group is Richard Dawkins, a biologist and professor of science at Oxford University in England. Dawkins considers the kind of faith displayed by Rabbi Schneerson to be a great evil. “Faith is an evil,” he contends, “precisely becauseit requires no justification and brooks no argument.” (See The God Delusion (Mariner Books, 2008) at 347.) Worse, teaching children that “unquestioned faith is a virtue primes children  . . . to grow up unto potentially lethal weapons for future jihad or crusades.” (Id. at 347-48.)

Another New Atheist leader, Sam Harris, concedes that humankind cannot live by reason alone and acknowledges with favor “spiritual” and “mystical” experiences.  (See The End of Faith (W. W. Norton, 2004) at 43.) But he, like Dawkins, criticizes “faith,” defined as the kind of unreasoned life orientation toward “certain historical and metaphysical propositions” that has motivated many for millennia.  He compares this kind of faith not just to ignorance, but to mental illness and violent fanaticism. (See Id. at 64-65, 80-107, 131.)

Is there a third way, one less rigid and that disparages neither science nor faith?  Another approach, often articulated by “faithful” scientists, attempts to bridge the divide by arguing that science is, at its core, no different than faith.

The late physicist and astronomer  Charles Townes (1915-2015) won a Nobel prize in 1964 for his part in the development of lasers and subsequently was one of the discovers of the black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. He was also a devout Christian. Townes thought that religion and science were two methods which could be used to understand the universe and, moreover, were complimentary. More specifically, he claimed that faith is a part of science. He said that science has “postulates and we believe in them but can’t prove them.”

Paul Davies, another physicist and director of the Beyond Center at Arizona State University, has made similar statements. In an essay first published in 2007 by The New York Times, Davies took aim at the conventional argument that science is seen as based on testable hypotheses, and asserted that science is based on faith. That is, according to Davies, “science has its own faith–based belief system.” “All science,” he wrote, “proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way.”  Indeed, in Davies’ view, to be a scientist, “you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find . . . the speed of light changing by the hour.”

In Davies’ view, both religion science and religion rest “on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too.” He says, “(c)learly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith . . . .”

This third approach is far from clear, however, and hardly satisfying. Indeed, the argument contains a least two fundamental flaws, one an overstated premise and the other a conclusion of false equivalence. First, the premise “all” science proceeds on an assumption of “ordered” nature, and that the ordering is “rational” is not at all obvious. The formulation smacks of intentional design and the presence of some controlling and sensible Orderer. It does not account for a universe that is replete with seemingly random acts, some of which are not so kind. Supernovae explode. Galaxies collide. Comets hit planets. Volcanoes explode.  Plagues spread. Genes mutate. Quantum events occur, by definition, unpredictably. In short, stuff happens far and near and there are real life consequences. Science may be able to explain specific events to a degree, even a significant degree, by reference to certain laws of physics, chemistry and biology, but explaining any such activity is not the same as determining it to be “rational” and “ordered.” Second, the conclusion that both religion and science rest on “faith” is based on a distortion of both the word “faith” and the essence of science, or, more precisely, the scientific method.

In response to an essay by Professor of Science and Society Daniel Sarewitz, one of Davies’ colleagues at ASU, University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne dissected the argument that science and religion both rest on faith. Quoting Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann, Coyne defines religious faith as an “’intense, usually confident belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.’”  Instead, the belief rests on “revelation, authority, and scripture . . . .” By contrast, “scientists don’t have a quasi-religious faith in authorities, books, or propositions without empirical support.” They neither proceed based on a personal revelation nor swear allegiance to a creed.

Does science assume that nature is ordered, as Davies has suggested? No, says Coyne, but scientists have observed that there is regularity in the universe. Does science assume that reason will lead to truth? No, but scientists use reason because it’s a “tool that’s been shown to work. . . . it produces results and understanding. Even discussing why we should use reason employs reason!”  Does science have faith “that it’s good to know the truth?” No, Coyne continues, but scientists prefer to “know what’s right because what’s wrong usually doesn’t work.”

Consider two examples. The first deals with the relationship of the Sun and Earth. Some may believe that the Sun will “come up” tomorrow because God wills it. And Little Orphan Annie may tell us that we can bet our bottom dollar that “(t)he sun’ll come out tomorrow” because, well, she’s a cockeyed optimist. But science will tell us that unless the Sun stops burning its remaining multi-billion year supply of fuel or Earth’s orbit or axis is altered, the Sun will certainly appear to rise tomorrow in the East as it has each and every day for billions of years.

Now consider the difference between thinking that the first human was fully formed out of a lump of soil less than six thousand years ago and thinking that Homo sapiens emerged after billions of years of evolution? We weren’t around for either event, so how can we know which, if either, is factually true?  The sole support for the first proposition is a religious text thousands of years old. You can believe it or not, but you cannot interrogate the author of the text or read reports of any witnesses. There is, in short, no evidentiary support for the proposition.

Support for the second proposition rests not on an unverifiable text, but on a reasonably well established, if not fully complete, sequence of evolution evidenced both by bones and samples of deoxyribonucleic acid (“DNA”), a molecule that contains the “hereditary information in humans and almost all other organisms.” The stories told by the analyses of both corroborate each other and lead to confidence in the shared conclusion:  modern humans, Homo sapiens, did not emerge fully formed within the last six thousand years. Rather, our order of mammals, characterized by placentas, opposable thumbs and relatively large brains, begat a smaller family of ape like creatures, Hominidae, which have such distinguishing features as thirty-two teeth and extended parenting.  About seven million years ago, give or take, that family generated two branches. One led ultimately to chimpanzees and bonobos, the other to a group collectively called homonims. Perhaps five million more years passed until the emergence of the genus Homo. Our species, Homo sapiens, appeared about 200-300,000 years ago.   (See Coyne, Why Evolution is True (Penguin Books 2010) at 4, 8, 190-212.)

The process by which science attempts to determine truth is called the scientific method. It consists of a series of discrete, though interrelated, steps that loop back at one or more points so that the idea at issue is constantly refined and, if possible, falsified or verified. The process can be summarized as follows:

  1. Observe phenomenon
  2. Ask questions
  3. Develop a hypothesis
  4. Predict an outcome
  5. Test the hypothesis
  6. Gather data
  7. Evaluate results
  8. Falsify, modify or confirm hypothesis
  9. Share conclusions

Once we understand the nature of the scientific method, it is clear how different religion’s approach is to the resolution of perceived puzzles. Religion may begin with observations, but then its methodology departs from the scientific framework. Religion may, for instance, tell a story about how one person’s walking staff miraculously turned into a snake or generated sprouts, blossoms and fruit (see Ex. 7:10-12, Nos. 17:16-23), and you can choose to accept those stories as historical facts, unique and sacred, or as literary devices, but certainly the text contains no prediction that the outcomes would ever be the same if the incidents were repeated and no attempted replication is ever attempted.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium and popular science communicator, likes to say, essentially, that “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” It’s a great applause line. But it is not quite right, as he well knows. Science, even at its best, is not truth, but a process for attempting to find truth.

And, as Tyson also surely knows, the scientific method has its limits. Sometimes our tools and techniques are not sufficient or are not used correctly and rigorously enough to measure natural phenomena accurately or completely. The geocentric model of the universe advanced by Ptolemy appeared to work reasonably well for centuries to explain the movement of planets and stars, and even successfully to predict events like eclipses. But it was a flawed model, and ultimately replaced by the Copernican view, which itself was refined by, among others, Galileo who had a telescope, then Newton who utilized calculus and Einstein who applied the mathematics of relativity.  Then, too, sometimes scientific studies are not well designed or executed for financial or political reasons. The result is that many research findings are less reliable than they suggest. (See, e.g., here.) What this teaches us, however, is not that the scientific method is not to be trusted as much as that over time science tends to self-correct.

And to be fair, though Messrs. Dawkins and Harris and Coyne might not agree, religion can and sometimes does too. Judaism today is surely not the Judaism of the Temple periods, when the biblical stories were collected, redacted and canonized. Nor is it the Judaism of the Talmudic period, when oral conversations about a myriad of topics were reduced to writing and became precedential and even binding. Similarly, Judaism transitioned through its medieval and modern periods.

Today, some may still follow Rabbi Schneerson in his belief in the literal truth of the biblical creation story, but not all. Today most  understand that the story was not meant to assert a scientific truth as much as an allegorical one, that it was not meant to describe the origins of the cosmos as much as set the stage for a social and historical drama.

In short, Jewish thought has evolved from the biblical perspective on everything from the grand question of the origin of the universe to the less cosmic but very serious issues of abortion and same sex marriage.[See, e.g., here and here.)  And it has done so not by hierarchical decree, because for two thousand years Jews have not had a High Priest or an accepted religious governing structure. Rather, Jews have developed their Judaism organically and for the last several centuries in the context of a European Enlightenment in which science has been a dominant factor.

With some notable exceptions, Jews today, like British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, accept that science and religion both “seek to decode mysteries,” but do so with different techniques and for different purposes, that  they are “different intellectual enterprises,” one about “explanation” and the other about “interpretation.”  For them, the “Bible is not proto-science, pseudo-science or myth masquerading as science.”  (See Sacks, The Great Partnership (Schocken 2011), at 284-85.) Consequently, for the overwhelming majority of Jews there is no need to rationalize the non-rational or to engage in contortions to conflate ancient stories and modern science. (See, e.g., here, here and here.)

Nor is it necessary to engage in word tricks that define faith to encompass that which it does not. Rather, modern Jewish thought can respect both faith and science, even as it denies both that “religion holds a monopoly on virtue” and that science is the sole source of reality. (See Sacks, above, at 287, 289.)

Moreover, for Jews who respect and affirm science, Judaism today can be reality based. And reality based Judaism can be as vibrant and even more compelling than myth based, science rejecting Judaism.

But wait, Dawkins, Harris and Coyne might caution, what kind of god can there be in reality based Judaism? That would be a challenging question, but a fair one. Whatever the answer may be, it will not be a god who appears as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. (See Ex. 13:21-22.)  Considering what kind of god might emerge, might be plausible, might be real, will have to await another day, however. That’s OK. Judaism teaches patience. (See, e.g., Prov. 14:29, and here.) For now, let’s be grateful for a little clarity on the nature of religious faith and scientific confidence.


Roger Price <![CDATA[Ginger Jews]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=604 2015-04-07T19:57:39Z 2015-04-07T19:57:39Z Last year, about two hundred red haired Israeli Jews gathered for a conference at Kibbutz Gezer in Israel. While that is a nice size group, there were, apparently, many hundreds who were interested in attending, but unable to do so. Those who attended the conference shared stories, sang a popular children’s song called “I am a Redhead,” and reportedly had a good time. Gezer, by the way, is Hebrew for carrot.

And then there is Stav Shaffir, the not even thirty year old Member of the Knesset whose hair is vibrant red. Stav, by the way, is Hebrew for Autumn.

There is even Hebrew slang for redheads: gingi (Jeenji) for a male and gingit (Jeenjit) for a female, both Hebraicized corruptions of the English ginger.

What’s with Jews and red hair?

The Jewish connection to red hair turns out to be quite complex. The first possible references to redheaded Jews appear, not surprisingly, in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. Two well-known personalities, Esau and David, are described as admoni, meaning red or ruddy. (See Gen. 25:25; 1 Sam. 16:12, 17:42.)

Some commentators leap quickly from admoni to red hair, but there is both more and less here than meets the eye. With respect to Esau, the text suggests that he was red and hairy all over, but admoni also serves as a pun for Edom, whose residents were said to be descendants of Esau. (See Gen. 36:9.). When used regarding David, the reference is even more obscure, and does not clearly involve hair. Rather, it is more suggestive of a ruddy complexion.

Even if the two references were to red hair, they provide no consistent signal or message or even information because the two men are viewed quite differently. David, the poet-warrior and king of united Israel, has been idealized, the founder of a royal dynasty that God promised to last forever. (See 2 Sam. 7:12-16; 1 Kings 9:4-7, 11:36, 15:4; 2 Kings 8:19.) By contrast Esau has been marginalized in the Hebrew Bible. Tricked by his younger twin brother Jacob, the patriarch to be, Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of red lentil stew, later married two Canaanite women and a daughter of Ishmael and is viewed as the progenitor of the Edomites. (See Gen. 25:30-34, 26:34, 28:9, 36:1-3, 9.)

In any event, these two instances of red hair, if that is what they are, seem isolated situations in the Tanakh, and not particularly indicative of anything worthy or special. To the contrary, black hair was view as normal, even idealized. (See Eccles. 11:10; Song of Songs 5:11.)

Of course, whether Esau and even David actually existed is open to question, and the description of hair as red may have been more a literary device than actual reporting. Or not. In 2000, Dr. James Tabor entered a recently broken entrance to a first century tri-level tomb south of Jerusalem. Inside he found not only skeletal remains of a Jewish male, but a preserved sample of his hair. And the color of the hair was “reddish.”  (For more, see here.) So the notion of red haired Jews during biblical times may not have been entirely fanciful.

Many centuries later, in English drama and literature, two Jews were portrayed with red hair and quite unfavorably. William Shakespeare’s Shylock was frequently costumed with red hair, really a fright wig, in productions of The Merchant of Venice. (See here, at 7/11.) Charles Dickens’ Fagin, the manipulative criminal in the novel Oliver Twist was adorned with natural red hair.

While the anti-Semitism prevalent in England during those times (at least) cannot be denied, one should be cautious about drawing a connection between the red hair and antipathy towards Jews. Shakespeare himself did not portray Shylock in unmitigated bad light. To the contrary, the bond story in which Shylock is prominent is of a piece with the two other principal themes in the play, the casket story and the ring story. In each and all, the playwright through his characters literally asks about form and substance, as well as uniqueness and commonality. So Shylock famously inquires, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”  And later, Portia, guised as a young lawyer, wonders “Which is the merchant here and which the Jew?” As the marvelous early twentieth century Shakespeare scholar Harrold C. Goddard observed, this ironical play is about “what is within and what is without” and we are often more like the other than we might wish to recognize. (See The Meaning of Shakespeare, Vol. 1, at 82 (Phoenix Books 1960).)

Nor is it clear or even likely that Shakespeare would have used red hair as a sign of malevolence. After all, when The Merchant of Venice was first mounted in 1596, the reigning monarch was Queen Elizabeth I. As the queen had red hair, there was nothing to be gained by antagonizing her.

Dickens’ treatment of Fagin was quite different. The original version of his novel, published in 1837, contained over 250 references to Fagin as “the Jew,” and Dickens did not mean it in a nice way. Nor did he temper his portrayal with humanistic utterances. Still, his selection of red hair for Fagin was not necessarily part of the seemingly anti-Semitic package. It surely could have been the literary equivalent of the fright wig associated with Shylock, but it may also or additionally have been meant to be one in a series of characteristics like old age, ugliness, criminality and suggested child predation that marked Fagin as an archetypal villain. That is, the hair choice could simply have been a conventional, accessible and easily understood “marker of low moral character, of fiery hot tempers, of violence, of suspiciousness.”  (See also, here.)

Jews have had their own post-biblical fictional redheads, too. In Yiddish folklore, di royte yidn were redheaded Jewish fighters who were strong, brave, independent warriors and could rescue their fellow Jews from whatever was the persecution of the day.

Esau and David, Shylock and Fagin, and di royte yidn, notwithstanding, red hair was and is not a predominant trait of Jews. Hair color, like other traits, is determined genetically, of course, and, in this instance, by the production and regulation of two pigments by the melanocortin 1 receptor (“MC1R”) gene found in chromosome 16. But MC1R is not like the Cohen Modal Haplotype that seems to allow certain male Jews to trace their lineage back 2,500 years to the Second Temple period. Nor is it found disproportionately among certain Jews as are certain BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations which are markers, or genetic signals, for early onset breast cancer.

The MC1R gene appears to be recessive. Typically, for an individual to be born with red hair, both parents must be carriers of an MC1R gene and the MC1R gene from both must combine in the fertilized egg. MC1R operates on two pigments, eumelanin and pheomelanin, and, in general, the more of the latter, the redder the hair. But MC1R is also quite variable, and may be subject to being influenced by modifiers. In fact, according to University of Delaware Professor John H. McDonald in “Red hair color: The myth,” the genetics of hair color is “complicated.”

While human hair color varies enormously, from the lightest blonde to the darkness black, red hair manifests itself only in about 1% of humans worldwide. (See here.) Individuals with red hair can be found around the globe, but the greatest concentrations are in Northern European populations, and in particular, in Scotland and Ireland where, respectively, 13% and 10% of the population are redheads. One theory is that genetic material for red hair was favored in such areas because it would allow for the production of Vitamin D in circumstances of low sunlight and ultra-violet radiation. The prevalence in the United States is 2%. (Id.)

Data on the prevalence of red hair in Jews is uneven and questionable. Hair color does seem to have been a topic of considerable interest at the end of the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth. An article in the Jewish Encyclopedia published in 1906 contains several tables which collect various observations of hair color in Jews around the world. One table concerns Jewish school children in Central Europe (Austria, Bavaria, Germany and Hungary). While most of the children are indicated to have brown or black hair, approximately one quarter to one-third of these children are said to have blond hair. The incidence of red hair is less than 1%. A second table concerns hair color among Jews in selected countries throughout Europe. While dark hair again predominates, the frequency of red hair often appears to be 2% or higher, reaching more than 4% in Poland, Galicia and Russia. The information is of doubtful value, however. Among other problems, the size of the sample populations differs greatly from country to country and the method for selecting the individuals is unknown.

A somewhat similar review occurred in New York City, the results of which were published in 1903 by Maurice Fishberg, a physician and anthropologist, in the American Anthropologist. Fishberg’s paper was titled “Physical Anthropology of the Jews.”  With a sample size of almost 2300 Jews twenty years old and older, and reasonably split between males and females, Fishberg found that about 82% of Jews studied had dark hair, meaning black, brown or dark chestnut, while about 15% had fair hair, that is, light chestnut or blond, and about 3% had red hair. (Fishberg, at 92.) The precise percentage of male redheads was 2.53%, and the percentage for females was 3.69%. Fishberg characterized the percentage of red-haired Jews to be “high.” (At 97.) And he stated, without reference to any authority, that “erythrism [a prevalence of red pigmentation] has been regarded as characteristic of the European Jews.” (At 98.) Similarly, he contended that that the condition “appears not to be of recent origin,” referring to the biblical descriptions of Esau and David. (At 98.)

Fishberg also observed the color of beards on 587 Jews and found that 10.9% of them were red. From this, he concluded that “red hair is nearly three times as common in the beard as in the hair of the head.” His calculations are not clear. If the percentage of male redheads was 2.53%, then a 10.9% red beard observation would indicate that red beards are more than four times as common as red head hair. In any event, Fishberg characterized the frequency of red beards as “not at all surprising” because “any one who has observed Jews closely” would know that “the beard is quite frequently red . . . .” (At 99.)

What the percentage of red-headed Jews is today is not at all clear. What is clearer and more important is that Jews come in all shapes and all sizes and all shades, with different aptitudes, attitudes and orientations.  Whether Jews started as one wandering family that settled in Egypt, grew over time, and was forged into a nation in the wilderness, or, alternatively, emerged from Canaanite tribes, the Jewish People today is truly a mixed multitude. Jews are a multi-national, multi-racial people whose members are bound together in different ways and to different extents by an uneven mix of religion and culture, language and literature, history and choice, and, yes, genetic material too. For some, that genetic material includes the MC1R gene that may make for redheads.

Red hair is not, however, a marker of Jewishness. Red hair is neither restricted to Jews, nor is it predominant among them. Natural hair grows on Jews in many colors, maybe not as many as the colors on Joseph’s coat (see Gen. 37:3), but more than enough to dispel unwarranted stereotypes. Literary and artistic conventions aside, the incidence of red hair among Jews evidences that Jews are just like everyone else. As Shylock might say today, “Swab our cheeks. Do we not share the same chromosomes?” OK, that’s not as tightly, nor as sharply put as what Shylock said in his soliloquy, but the point is the same.

Ginger Jews remind us of how varied Jews are. Ironically, the most important thing about redheadedness in Jews may well be that it is really not that important at all.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller <![CDATA[Free Will vs. Deterministic Cause and Effect]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=599 2015-03-19T16:24:34Z 2015-03-19T16:24:34Z For over 3,000 years philosophers and religious thinkers have argued about free will. Some have argued that everything has a material cause that determines all material effects including emotions like fear, love and happiness. Others have argued that there are also subjective mental states like belief, morality and self-identity that influence individual’s reactions to an objective material stimulus.

Now it seems that science has discovered that even worms have free will. If offered a delicious smell, for example, a roundworm will usually stop its wandering to investigate the source, but sometimes it won’t. Just as with humans, the same stimulus does not always provoke the same response, even from the same individual.

New research at Rockefeller University, published online in Cell, offers a new neurological explanation for this variability, derived by studying a simple three-cell network within the roundworm brain. “We found that the collective state of the three neurons at the exact moment an odor arrives determines the likelihood that the worm will move toward the smell. So, in essence, what the worm is thinking about at the time determines how it responds,” says study author Cori Bargmann. “It goes to show that nervous systems aren’t passively waiting for signals from outside, they have their own internal patterns of activity that are as important as any external signal when it comes to generating a behavior.”

The researchers went a step deeper to tease out the dynamics within the network. By changing the activity of the neurons individually and in combination, they could pinpoint each neuron’s role in generating variability in both brain activity and the behavior associated with it. This is almost impossible to do for humans because the human brain has 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses, or connections, among them.

But the brain of the microscopic roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, by comparison, has only 302 neurons and 7,000 synapses. So while the worm’s brain cannot replicate the complexity of the human brain, scientists can use it to address tricky neurological questions that would be nearly impossible to broach in our own brains.

Worms spend their time wandering, looking for decomposing matter to eat. And when they smell it, they usually stop making random turns and travel straight toward the source. This change in behavior is initially triggered by a sensory neuron that perceives the smell and feeds that information to the network the researchers studied.

As the worms pick up the alluring fruity smell of isoamyl alcohol, the neurons in the network transition into a low activity state that allows them to approach the odor. But sometimes the neurons remain highly active, and the worm continues to wander around — even though its sensory neuron has detected the odor.

Scaled up to account for the more nuanced behaviors of humans, the research may suggest ways in which our brains process competing motivations. “For humans, a hungry state might lead to you walk across the street to a delicious smelling restaurant.” However, if a person finds out that the wonderful smelling food in forbidden by his or her religious or moral commitments it may not be eaten. Thus, a mental state of belief offsets the biological cause and leads to a different behavioral outcome.

There is plenty of evidence suggesting network states have a similar impact on animals with much larger and more complex brains like humans. “In a mammalian nervous system, millions of neurons are active all the time. Traditionally, we think of them as acting individually, but that is changing. Our understanding has evolved toward seeing important functions in terms of collective activity states within the brain.” says Bargmann.

Or as Moses said over 3,200 years ago: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live (Deut.30:19).

Rabbi Allen S. Maller is the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His website is: www.rabbimaller.com.  Earlier versions of this article may have appeared elsewhere.

The views expressed by Rabbi Maller are his own and not necessarily those of the Blogmaster. They are published in order to promote this blog’s mission to provide information and foster discussion about matters of faith and science. The Blogmaster thanks Rabbi Maller for his contribution to this forum.






Roger Price <![CDATA[Sagan, Stars and Grains of Sand]]> http://www.judaismandscience.com/?p=594 2015-02-23T20:19:37Z 2015-02-23T20:19:37Z Who could look at the stars and yawn? Certainly not astronomer Carl Sagan.  Sagan, a serious scientist, popularized a journey though the universe just over a third of a century ago with his award winning TV series, Cosmos. To impress upon his viewers how many stars existed, Sagan would enthusiastically assert that there were “billions and billions” of them, stressing and drawing out the first syllable each time.

As he acknowledged at the outset, however, the “size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding.” So, to try to make such an enormous quantity understandable, he said that “the total number of stars in the universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.” (Watch here; see also, Sagan, Cosmos (Random House 1980) at 4, 196.) It was a wonderful reference.

We may sense that there are a lot of stars in the sky, but with the naked eye it is hard to pinpoint and count them, even or maybe especially on a clear night. Sand is somewhat different. We can take a fistful of it at a beach, survey the area, think about the coast lines of the various continents, and then factor in countless interior beaches. Sagan says that our hand will hold about 10,000 grains of sand. (Cosmos, at 196.) Without help, we may not be able to do the math or know the result of the equation, but we can understand that the beaches hold an enormous number of grains of sand.

What Sagan did not say is that his two subjects, stars and sand, were invoked long ago in the Hebrew Bible as metaphors for abundance. They appear first in the book of Genesis, each separately and once together.

In the very first instance, God is assuring Abram that although he is of advanced age and without heirs, he will, nevertheless, have many descendants. “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.  . . . So shall your offspring be.” (See Gen. 15:5.) Shortly later, we are told that Abram’s concubine Hagar has borne him a son, Ishmael, and not long after that Abram, now called Abraham, and his wife Sarah become the parents of Isaac. (See Gen. 16:1-16, 21:1-3.)

The second reference — the joint reference — follows Abraham’s test on the mountain where he goes with Isaac to present a burnt offering for God. According to the story, an angel of God calls to Abraham, stops the proceedings before the sacrifice of Isaac and relates God’s declaration: “I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore . . . .” (See Gen. 22:17.)

The third mention in Genesis arises in the context of Jacob meeting with his estranged brother Esau after many years. Here Jacob expresses his fear that Esau may kill him and his family and prays that God remember his prior promise which Jacob casts as follows: “Yet You have said, ‘I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count.’” (See Gen. 32:4-13.)

Of course, the authors of these biblical passages were exercising poetic license to make a point, partly social, partly political, partly theological. Each had seen the evening sky dotted with distant lights. Even if they could see no more than a few thousand points, such lights must have seemed to be beyond measure. The authors may even have been familiar with the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea along the north coast of Egypt or the western areas of Canaan. The numbers of grains of sand would also surely have seemed limitless. So the authors and the final editors of the text made sure to stress that each of the three prime patriarchs of the Jewish People was present to witness a divine promise of fertility and demographic strength.

Not surprisingly, the metaphors had rhetorical legs, especially at times of great social stress, as can be seen in other biblical invocations.

  • The setting for Hosea’s prophecy — the dissolution of the Northern Kingdom of Israel due to internal corruption and external military forces — is among the earliest of preserved writings of its kind. After expressing God’s disenchantment with the House of Israel, Hosea consoled with a prediction that the people of Israel and of the Southern Kingdom of Judah would be reunited: “The number of the people of Israel shall be like the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured and counted . . . .“ (See Hos. 2:1-2.)
  • The Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians around 722 BCE, and a number of northerners did migrate south. But a century plus afterwards, the Kingdom of Judah came under attack by the Babylonians. As he sat in prison contemplating the destruction of Judah, Jeremiah revived the ancient metaphors and conveyed God’s assurance that the kingship of David’s family and the centrality of the priests would continue. “Like the host of heaven which cannot be counted, and the sand of the sea which cannot be measured, so will I multiply the offspring of my servant David, and of the Levites who minister to Me.” (See Jer. 33:1, 22.)
  • Still later, writing in the name of Isaiah, but centuries following the original prophet of that name, a second Isaiah chastised now exiled Judahites but also promised them that they will, through the success of God’s servant Cyrus, be free. He urged them to return from Babylonia to Judea and heed God’s commands. If they did, said Deutero-Isaiah in God’s name, then “your prosperity would be like a river, your triumph like the waves of the sea. Your offspring would be as many as the sand, their issue as many as its grains.” (See Is. 48:18-19.)

These words, must have been encouraging, as well as comforting, to those who first heard and later read them, and understood their roots in the tales of the patriarchs.

The authors of the Hebrew Bible would have be shocked to learn that today there are about six million Jews in modern Israel.  To them, 6,000,000 would seem to fulfill the ancient promises. Imagine their surprise if they learned that there are almost six million more Jews in a place called the United States of America, across a sea even greater than the great sea with which they may have been somewhat familiar.   Add to those communities other Jews in North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe and you have a world population of Jews totaling just under 14,000,000.

Perspective is important, however, and those 14,000,000 collectively do not exceed two-tenths of one per-cent of the planet’s more than 7,000,000,000 human inhabitants. Even if each and every person on Earth were Jewish, they still would not be as numerous as the stars in heaven or the grains of sand on the seashore.

The biblical authors did not know, and could not have known, how far their metaphor really reached. Nor could they reasonably have anticipated that even though those grains and stars are too numerous to count, there would  be efforts later to estimate the numbers involved.

Let’s start with sand. Conceptually, the problem is not too difficult, especially if you stick with the biblical formulation and exclude inland beaches. All you need to know is the volume of sand on the world’s coastal beaches and divide that number by the volume of an average grain of sand.

Sand particles, like the quartz grains that permeate the Mediterranean coast of Israel today, range between 0.05 and 2mm in diameter. For purposes of our calculation, a cubic millimeter of sand will serve as the volume of an average grain of sand.

The volume of sand on the world’s coastal beaches is a product of the length, width and depth of those beaches. The length of coasts can be determined reasonably well by modern technology, but not all coasts have beaches. Most estimates of the fraction of beach shore to coast range from about one-fifth to two-fifths. The length but especially the width of a beach varies throughout the day as tides ebb and flow. Naturally, the depth of the beach will then vary as well. One good effort to solve this problem was developed by physics professor Howard McAllister of the University of Hawaii, based on work done by Judaism and Science contributor Ludwik Kowalski. Prof. McAllister calculated the total length of the earth’s beach shores at around 50,000 kilometers (about 31,000 miles) and set the average width at 30 meters (just under 100 feet) and the average depth at 5 meters (just over 16 feet).

If you accept these parameters, then the number of grains of sand on the beaches of the seashores of the world total 7.5 x 1018, or 7.5 billion billion. Vary the coastal length, the percentage of beach shore, or the average width or the average depth and the estimated volume of sand will change. Of course, while this is educated conjecture, it is still conjecture. Another approach puts the number of grains at 5 billion billion, including those on inland beaches. Either way, the result is more than a few sextillion (a billion billion) grains of sand.

Calculating the number of stars in the sky presents different challenges than counting the grains of sand on the Earth’s seashores. Instead of having a reasonably fixed parameter with which to work, like the number of miles of seashore, the stars are set in a universe which is not only expanding, but expanding at an accelerated rate.

On the other hand, we are not concerned with the size of an average star, in the way we were with an average grain of sand. We will include the yellow stars like our Sun, but also all of the stars along the spectrum from red to blue, and even brown and white stars, too.  And we will include stars smaller than our Sun, the dwarfs and the neutron stars, and stars larger, the giants, and much larger, the supergiants.

The practical problem is that we can only include stars that we can see and we can only see a star if the radiation it emits, in the form of visible light or other electromagnetic waves, reaches our measuring devices. Even with NASA’s relatively new Hubble Space Telescope and the other, newer space observatories, our vision is limited to a discrete portion of the universe.

Moreover, some of what we do and do not detect presents a false picture. Our universe is about 13.7 billion years old. A few years ago, Hubble received light from a galaxy 13.2 billion light years way. We do not know, of course, and cannot know, if that star system has survived. We may be seeing stars that no longer exist. Conversely, stars are being born all the time. The light from some of these young stars may not have had time to reach us yet. If it takes 5 billion more years to get here, we will never see it as our Sun will die by then, and take us with it.

What we can say is that our Sun is one of over one hundred billion stars in its galaxy, the Milky Way. The star count is made by estimating the mass of the galaxy. Adjustments are then made to account for the fact that most of the stars in our galaxy are red dwarfs, each of which is smaller than one solar mass, the mass of our Sun. Some estimate the total number of stars in our galaxy to be 400 billion.

As Hubble and other observatories probe deeper and deeper into space, they see farther and farther back in time. Astronomers now believe that there may be 100 to 500 billion galaxies in the known universe. The majority of these galaxies, including the Andromeda galaxy located only 2.5 light years  (15 trillion miles) from us, are shaped in a spiral like the Milky Way. But not all are. Some, like the much more distant M13 galaxy found in the constellation Hercules, are rounder and are known as globular clusters. The most massive galaxies, the largest known one of which is the IC 1101, may be flat or round but are more elliptical.

Similarly, the number of stars may vary greatly from galaxy to galaxy. For instance, according to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Andromeda may contain a trillion stars. It is far from the largest galaxy, however. IC 1101, a billion light years away, may hold a hundred trillion stars. Conversely, dwarf galaxy may hold just one to ten million stars. Consequently, a reasonable range of the possible number of stars in the known universe is quite large and extends from 10 billion billion to 200 billion billion.

Even at the low end of the estimated range, the number of stars seems to exceed the number of sands of grain on the seashores of the Earth, and the inland beaches, too. (For a different set of numbers, but with the same relative results, see here.) So Carl Sagan was right.

Now some folks may conclude from all of this that the Hebrew Bible has been proven, once again, to be a faulty guide. The reported promise from God that the number of descendants of the Jewish patriarchs would exceed the number of stars in heaven or grains of sand on the seashore has not come true. Moreover, science through Sagan and others has shown definitively that the promise will never be fulfilled.

The literalists would be literally correct, of course.  But, as they often do, they miss the greater messages of biblical literature. First, the recorders of the patriarchal legends and the prophets cited above were not seeking to make a scientific point, or a mathematical statement about demography. They were, rather, expressing their faith in their social and political future. They were asserting, even as Americans echoed a similar assertion over two millennia later, a mixture of confidence and hope in a doctrine of manifest destiny, a conviction that the descendants of Abraham, as a people and a nation, had a mission to fulfill and would, in time, fulfill it. The belief was surely related to a belief in God, but it was grounded in quite natural human concerns and desires.

Second, in focusing on the number of stars or grains, the literalists would, to mix the metaphor, miss the forest for the trees. The biblical authors were not concerned with tallying the precise number of stars or grains. They did not care whether the sums were in the millions or billions or, as it turns out, the sextillions. Indeed, they had no concept of such numbers. What they thought, and correctly so at the time and to a considerable degree even today, was that the numbers were so huge as to be uncountable.  And they were expressing their awe at the wonder of it all.

Here Sagan and the authors of biblical authors are on the same page. For all of his disdain at the mythology of religion, and especially in instances which he saw as the intrusion of religion on the turf of science, in 1990 Sagan joined in an open letter which acknowledged: “As scientists, many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before the universe.” Five years later, and just one year before he died, Sagan contended that “science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” Summarizing Sagan’s approach to the sacred, Dartmouth religion professor Nancy Frankenberry has written that he was “utterly imbued with  . . . a marvelous sense of belonging to a planet, a galaxy, a cosmos that inspires devotion as much as discovery.” (See Frankenberry, The Faith of Scientists (Princeton 2008), at 222-24.)

So we should not be surprised to learn that Sagan, like the author of the second creation story in Genesis, addressed the same, age old questions asking who we are, where we came from (and when) and what our place is in the universe.   That biblical author described the first human as being fashioned out of the dust of the ground. In the Hebrew text, the connection of humanity to the soil is made starkly clear by the use of a pun: “ha-adam” (the human) is formed from “ha-adamah” (the ground). (See Gen. 2:7.)

What that author did not realize was that the dust of the Earth was stardust, forged in the furnaces of untold stars, spewed into space, moved along with intersteller winds and, ultimately, bound together on our home planet. Sagan, with such knowledge, wrote that humankind is “the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness.”  We are, he said, “starstuff pondering stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering he evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.”  (See Cosmos, above, at 345.)

The late poet Aaron Zeitlin once wrote:

Praise Me, says God, and I will know that you love Me.

Curse Me, says God, and I will know that you love Me.

Praise Me or curse Me, and I will know that you love Me.  . . .

But if you sit fenced off in your apathy, says God,

If you sit entrenched in, “I couldn’t care less,” says God,

If you look at the stars and yawn, . . .

Then I created you in vain, says God.

Both Carl Sagan and the authors of the Hebrew Bible would ask the same question: How can you look at the stars and yawn?